Lionel Messi back for Argentina in crucial World Cup qualifier vs. Chile
Chile face Argentina on Thursday in a rematch of the 2015 Copa America final; same teams, same venue (Santiago's National stadium) but the guarantee of a different outcome. After 120 minutes of scoreless football last July, the title was decided on a penalty shootout, with Chile holding their nerve to claim their first-ever trophy.
Thursday's clash is different -- it takes place in the fifth round of South America's marathon World Cup qualification campaign. There will be no penalty shootouts. If scores are level at the end of 90 minutes, then both teams add a point to their tally, with that outcome likely not being seen as a great success by either side.
The continent has four automatic slots at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. At the moment they are being filled by Ecuador, Uruguay, Brazil and Paraguay. Chile lie fifth, in the playoff spot. Argentina are currently off the board. Both teams, then, have short-term necessities, and Thursday's match is not about revenge for or ratification of last year's Copa America. It is an important match on the road to Russia, which will leave the loser under considerable pressure if either team grab three points.
Argentina's poor start has much to do with star absences. The first four rounds were played while Lionel Messi was recovering from injury at Barcelona. He has yet to kick a ball in the campaign, and Sergio Aguero has kicked precious few, limping off after 20 minutes of the opening game. Both are now back, and though some strikers have had to pull out, throw in Angel Di Maria and an in-form Gonzalo Higuain and it is clear that coach Gerardo Martino can count on an awesome array of firepower.
But he cannot count on a candidate for the title of most important player in the team. Javier Mascherano is suspended, and the defensive midfielder (the position he plays for his country) will be a huge loss. As anyone who accompanied the weekend's Premier League action will be aware, centre-back is not Argentina's strongest position, hence the importance of the protection provided by Mascherano. Without him, Alexis Sanchez and company will be licking their lips at the prospect of being able to run at the Argentine defensive line.
Chile, too, have a key absence. Man of the match in that Copa America final was Charles Aranguiz. Normally the midfielder uses his lung power to burst forward and join the attack. Last July, though, he played a more cautious game, with a focus on isolating Messi from his teammates. Aranguiz, though, has been a long-term injury casualty after tearing his Achilles tendon last August ahead of his debut with Bayer Leverkusen. Without him, Chile will have to come up with a new defensive strategy to counter Argentina's star-studded attack -- and they have a new man to do it.
Following the controversial resignation of Jorge Sampaoli at the start of the year, Chile are now coached by Juan Antonio Pizzi, an Argentine who starts his reign in this crunch match against his native country. Sampaoli stamped his mark all over the Chile side. Pizzi stepped into a role that brought with it considerable concerns going forward.
One possible reason for Sampaoli's decision to quit is the belief that the current generation of Chilean players might now be starting to move downhill. Assuming they qualify, Russia 2018 would be the third World Cup for what has been a golden generation, and it might prove one too many. This impression was hardly dampened by Chile's last game under Sampaoli, when they dominated possession away to Uruguay but were picked off on the break and beaten 3-0.
Pizzi will now timidly start a rebuilding process. To Sampaoli's old guard he has added some interesting youngsters such as centre forward Nico Castillo and Jeisson Vargas, a quick, direct striker who can operate down either flank. These and other new faces will probably be introduced slowly -- the Copa Centenario in June is a useful opportunity. But in the short term, both Pizzi of Chile and Martino of Argentina are chasing a critical early three points from Thursday's clash in Santiago.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.