Argentina’s Alvarez shows there will be life after Messi; Brazil look tired


World Cup winners Argentina have reached a point where the absence of Lionel Messi from the starting XI is not a tragedy, it is an opportunity.

Messi, 36, made the difference in last month’s opening 2026 World Cup qualifier at home to Ecuador, but picked up a knock and sat out the following game: a hugely impressive 3-0 win away to Bolívia. With little football under his belt since then, the Inter Miami star was on the bench for Thursday’s meeting with Paraguay in Buenos Aires. But up stepped Julián Álvarez.

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Argentina had prepared for their 2022 World Cup campaign with the idea that they would have the bulk of possession, with Messi in constant contact with the ball, but things proved a bit more difficult. Coach Lionel Scaloni had a rethink and, with Messi’s actions more sporadic, a mobile striker was needed to do some of his running. So centre forward Lautaro Martínez lost his place and Manchester City forward Alvarez came in, to great success.

Against Paraguay there was space for both Martinez and Alvarez. This time, with all due respect, Alvarez played the Messi role. And he did it outstandingly well.

As the World Cup made clear, Alvarez is quick but he thinks even more quickly than he moves. After taking the lead when Nicolás Otamendi vollyed home a corner at the far post, Argentina played an excellent first half and should have scored far more. Alvarez was at the heart of most of the good things they did; finding space wide on the right or through the middle, combining well with Martinez, and switching play to good effect.

He gave way to Messi early in the second half and the legendary No. 10 gave the crowd some moments to remember: almost scoring direct from a corner and hitting the post with a typically sublime free kick. But from open play, he looked well short of his usual sharpness.

It was a glimpse of the future as it is unclear how long Messi will be part of this national team. Scaloni says there is a place for him in the 2026 World Cup squad if he wants it; the player himself is on record as saying he is unsure he will get that far. One thing is certain: when the day comes that Messi is no longer playing international, Alvarez will be around to ease the pain.

Against Paraguay, a 1-0 victory was scant reward for Argentina’s supremacy. They were wasteful in front of goal and nearly paid the price when winger Ramón Sosa ran past their defence only to shoot wide. But more important is that Argentina look like a team, clear in its concepts, passing the ball diagonally forward, winning it back with a quick press in the opposing half.

No other international team look remotely as together and consolidated. Argentina have had the same process for over five years and, with the World Cup in their hands, are making serene progress.

Everyone else looks undercooked, because they are. This has been the shortest interval ever between the end of one World Cup cycle and the start of the next, and a collection of new coaches are struggling with the lack of preparation time.

This certainty applies to Brazil, who played their third game under Fernando Diniz — their first World Cup qualifier in the Pantanal Arena, the stadium built for the 2014 World Cup in Cuiaba — but were surprisingly held 1-1 by Venezuela.

On a warm night, Brazil were in control, but the half-time statistics made for worrying reading. Brazil had over 75% possession, but Venezuela had enjoyed just as many shots.

Neymar and Vinícius Júnior struggled to click together, Brazil were unable to bring Richarlison into the game, and Venezuela drew confidence from their defensive resilience. Early in the second half, Arsenal centre-back Gabriel Magalhaes opened the scoring with a header from a corner, and the game appeared to be drifting to a 1-0 win for the hosts.

When Diniz made a triple substitution it smacked of arrogance — an air of “with the game won let’s have a look at some players.” Brazil lost structure in midfield and Venezuela took advantage, Eduard Bello meeting a cross from the right with a superb overhead kick that saw them hold on for a hard-fought draw.

Fatigue was a certainly a factor in the pulsating 2-2 draw between Colombia and Uruguay — along with attacking intent of both coaches and the sweltering heat of the Barranquilla afternoon, which tired the players and opened up space.

Federico Valverde bossed the midfield for Uruguay, but James Rodríguez gave Colombia the lead and, after Uruguay had equalised, also helped set up a goal for Mateus Uribe. Then came late drama: Uruguay’s Maxi Araujo broke behind the defence and was brought down by Colombia goalkeeper Camilo Vargas, who was already on a yellow card. Off he went, and his replacement was unable to stop the Darwin Núñez penalty that brought Uruguay a 2-2 draw.

Elsewhere, after setting up the winner at home to Uruguay last month, Ecuador’s 16-year-old midfielder Kendry Paez (set to join Chelsea when he turns 18 in 2025) scored the goal that put his side on the way to a 2-1 win away to Bolívia. But Peru are still looking for a goal after three rounds. A 2-0 defeat away to Chile leaves them off the early pace in the CONMEBOL table and it doesn’t get any easier as next up is Tuesday’s visit of Argentina.


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