Confident Brazil to face Sampaoli's under-pressure Argentina in Australia
A year before the 2014 World Cup, hosts Brazil won the Confederations Cup and felt they were on the right lines in terms of preparation. A few months later, almost bubbling over with confidence, coach Luiz Felipe Scolari declared that "we've done the hard point. We've found our team."
When the squad assembled at the end of May 2014, Scolari's vastly experienced coordinator Carlos Alberto Parreira, himself a World Cup-winning coach, said that the team "already had one hand on the trophy." The story of the weeks that followed is that of Brazil's confidence evaporating when brought into contact with cold, hard reality.
Current coach Tite is determined not to make the same mistake. There is no Confederations Cup this year. His equivalent came at the end of March, when his team beat Paraguay 3-0 to claim their eighth consecutive win in qualification and seal a place in Russia with four rounds to spare. But while Brazil could not possibly have done more and Tite could be happy, he was not satisfied. There was no way he would solidify his starting line up with a year to go.
In truth, Tite was not thrilled by the fact that his team has to travel all the way to Australia for friendlies against Argentina, in Melbourne on Friday, and then their hosts four days later. But he has turned it into a positive.
Almost all of the usual starters have been left out, including Neymar and the entire defensive unit. Just four regular first-teamers are in the squad: The China-based midfield pair of Paulinho and Renato Augusto, as well as Gabriel Jesus, who needs game time after his injury layoff and -- intriguingly -- Phillippe Coutinho.
The inclusion of the Liverpool star is either an olive branch to the Australian public, or it may mean that Tite plans to experiment with him in a different role, such as a deeper position in central midfield. The evidence of training sessions and two games will confirm one way or the other.
Joining this quartet are several fine players -- especially at the back -- who will be given a chance to push their claims.
Goalkeepers Ederson, a soon-to-be big-money Manchester City signing, and Diego Alves of Valencia; right-back Rafinha of Bayern Munich and left-back Alex Sandro of Juventus; David Luiz at centre-back or defensive midfield, fresh from a splendid season with Chelsea; and Jemerson, who has looked promising for Monaco.
The idea is to promote healthy competition for places. As Tite stressed when announcing the squad, the watchword is "opportunity."
For their opponents on Friday, meanwhile, the watchword is "emergency." Argentina are now on their third coach of a qualifying campaign that runs the risk of ending with them missing out on the World Cup; they are currently fifth, good enough only for a playoff spot.
New manager Jorge Sampaoli faces a crunch debut in the qualifiers when his side travels to Uruguay at the end of August. Ahead of that, he has just two matches to prepare and the second, against Singapore next week, will be of limited value in terms of drawing hard and fast conclusions.
So successful with Chile and so stirring for much of last season with Sevilla, Sampaoli now takes charge of the land of his birth with the task of creating a coherent side. Argentina are overflowing with individual attacking brilliance, but it seems fair to say that they have not looked like a solid unit for a decade.
Their dependence on flashes of brilliance from Lionel Messi has become absurd; he has played just six rounds in the current qualification campaign and Argentina have won five of them. Of the eight matches he has missed, his country has won just one.
True to his normal bold attacking style, it would appear that Sampaoli is going to surround Messi with plenty of options. Early reports indicate that Argentina are training with Gonzalo Higuain as the centre forward, with Messi and Paulo Dybala behind him and Eduardo Salvio and Angel Di Maria providing width.
Two central midfielders -- probably Lucas Biglia and Ever Banega -- will balance out the side, which leaves a back three. Here, things become really interesting. Sampaoli's sides press high, looking to impose themselves, throw plenty of players forward and constantly create two-against-one situations in the attacking third.
The risk is of being caught on the counter-attack -- this approach leaves a lot of space -- and Argentina's embarrassment of riches up front is not replicated in to their defence. Sampaoli had planned to deploy Javier Mascherano in the back line position he regularly fills for Barcelona, but injury has put that experiment on hold.
And so it seems that the classy but error prone Emanuel Mammana might be given the responsibility of anchoring the defence. Either side of him could be Gabriel Mercado, who is more of a full- than a centre-back, and Nicolas Otamendi, whose lack of pace could be exposed in open space.
It would be a brave move to play such a bold formation against a team as proficient on the counter as Brazil, who were always the benchmark when Sampaoli was in charge of Chile. He kept statistics of how many chances the Brazilians created against his team in each game and was happy to see the number going down until, when the teams met in the opening round of the current World Cup qualification campaign, Chile won 2-0.
Anything similar would be a big morale booster as Argentina prepare for the final straight of what has been a rocky road to Russia.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.