BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil (AP) Lionel Messi is back from injury, just the tonic Argentina needs in Thursday’s World Cup qualifier against Brazil.
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Messi missed Argentina’s last three qualifying matches with an injured left knee, and the results showed with draws against Peru and Venezuela, and a 1-0 loss against Paraguay.
“He (Messi) is extremely intelligent and has a great finishing skill, so we have to do double marking on him whenever we can,” Brazil midfielder Renato Augusto said. “We have to close the gaps for all Argentina players, and we have to remove Messi’s passing angle whenever he has the ball.”
Thursday’s match takes place in the same stadium where Brazil was humiliated two years ago in a 7-1 loss to Germany in the World Cup semifinals. But this time, the hosts will be focusing on containing Messi.
“It’s impossible to stop the ball from reaching Messi because he will start floating around to get it,” Renato Augusto said. “We need to take him out of his comfort zone.”
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Argentina striker Lucas Pratto, who plays for Brazilian club Atletico Mineiro, said the Brazilians fear Messi.
“They know that Leo is very tough. They are a little scared,” Pratto told Argentine newspaper Ole. “Or maybe more than a little.”
Messi scored in a 1-0 victory over Uruguay in September in the only match he’s played under Argentina coach Edgardo Bauza.
Argentina, World Cup runners-up two years ago against Germany, is five points behind group leader Brazil. The Argentines need points Thursday and next week in a difficult match against Colombia.
Brazil leads qualifying with 21 points, followed by Uruguay with 20 and Ecuador and Colombia with 17. Chile and Argentina have 16 points each.
The top four teams qualify automatically for the World Cup. The fifth-place team could advance through a playoff.
Brazil has won four straight matches since coach Tite took over after the five-time World Cup champions fired Dunga.
Tite will count on striker Neymar and right back Dani Alves for any new strategy to deal with Messi.
“(Brazil) has to do what it has been doing,” winger Douglas Costa, “regardless of Argentina.”