Neymar returns for Brazil against injury-hit Argentina
November 11 2015 09:49 PM

Brazil striker Neymar (right) and midfielder Lucas Lima fight for the ball during a training session in Sao Paulo yesterday, ahead of tonight's 2018 World Cup qualifier against Argentina, to be played in Buenos Aires. (Reuters)

AFP/Buenos Aires

Brazil superstar Neymar returns from suspension to face an injury-hit Argentina today as South America’s qualifying campaign for the 2018 World Cup resumes with a showdown between the bitter continental rivals.  
Neymar was forced to sit out of Brazil’s opening two qualifiers last month—a 2-0 defeat to Chile followed by a 3-1 victory over Venezuela—following his four-match suspension at the Copa America in June.  
But the talismanic striker is now back and available for Brazil as the five-time world champions head to Buenos Aires to face an Argentina side who took only one point from their first two games.  
Argentina suffered a shock 2-0 defeat at home to Ecuador in their opening game and then laboured to a goalless stalemate against Paraguay in Asuncion. Those results have piled the pressure on beleaguered Argentina manager Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino, whose position had already come under scrutiny after his star-studded side’s failure to win the Copa America.  
Martino’s preparations for today’s showdown at the Estadio Monumental have been thrown into turmoil by an injury crisis which has deprived him of an array of attacking talent.
Captain Lionel Messi had already been ruled out after suffering a long-term knee injury in September.  
Manchester City striker Sergio Aguero is also unavailable while Carlos Tevez is rated as doubtful after suffering a knee problem. Boca Juniors striker Tevez skipped training on Monday and is struggling to be fit according to press reports in Argentina. Paris Saint-Germain midfielder Javier Pastore is also a concern after suffering a calf injury.  
Brazil veteran Kaka, restored to the squad by coach Dunga earlier this year, has urged the Selecao to draw on the memory of their 3-1 win in Argentina during a 2009 World Cup qualifier as they prepare for Thursday’s clash.  
“Argentina haven’t won a game yet so they have an extra motivation to beat Brazil,” Kaka said. “We had a good win over Venezuela and we need to continue that. But it’s never easy against Argentina and it’s always a great game.  
“We know how difficult it is to go there and get a result, but we can win. We went there in 2009 and won—I can remember the party we had at the end of that match,” the former AC Milan star added.  
Elsewhere today, Ecuador and Uruguay will meet in a top-of-the-table meeting involving two sides with 100 percent records. Uruguay, who are still missing Luis Suarez as he serves out the remainder of his 2014 World Cup biting ban, will be able to recall striker Edinson Cavani, suspended during the Copa America for his lurid altercation with Chile’s Gonzalo Jara.  
The Uruguayans defeated Bolivia and Colombia in their opening games while Ecuador are brimming with confidence after stunning Argentina before a further win over Bolivia at home.  
Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez has urged “La Celeste” to reproduce
the decisiveness shown in their opening victories as they head for an awkward assignment at altitude against Ecuador.
“We need to be decisive, to be balanced, to work hard to limit the opponent and to try to create problems to get the points,” Tabarez said. “We’re psyched up and ready.”  
Ecuador meanwhile are facing injury problems of their own, with English Premier League duo Enner Valencia and Antonio Valencia both missing along with attacking midfielders Michael Arroyo and Renato Ibarra.  
In the other marquee match, Copa America champions Chile take on a Colombia side who have Real Madrid superstar James Rodriguez fit and available for selection once more.  
Elsewhere, Bolivia and Venezuela meet in La Paz seeking their first points of the qualifying campaign.  
Peru and Paraguay will face each other tomorrow in Lima.

Jaded Japan plot Singapore ambush

A   weary Japan are out for revenge when they take on Singapore in their World Cup qualifier today and are banking on a more precise approach in the final third to stymie the stubborn Southeast Asians, coach Vahid Halihodzic said yesterday.
Lowly Singapore stunned the four-times Asian champions by holding them to a goalless draw in June, thanks in large to a standout display by goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud and some sketchy finishing in Saitama by the revered Japanese frontline.
Franco-Bosnian coach Halihodzic is in no mood for a repeat, where a victory for the visitors would take them back above Syria to the top of Group E on 13 points ahead of next week’s fixture in Cambodia.
“For our players, it will be a revenge game,” the former Algeria coach told reporters in Singapore yesterday. “This time it will be difficult. Singapore are playing at home and will play for their people but we have the determination and quality to fight for victory.”
Halihodzic said he was unsure who he would select for the fixture, against opponents who also have 10 points, after a hectic run of games in the J League for the domestic-based players and a long flight for the European-based contingent.
Finding the right formula in attack has been somewhat problematic for Halihodzic, whose side have racked up 12 goals in three subsequent Group E victories over Afghanistan, Cambodia and Syria but have lacked the fluidity for long periods.
“So far, the opponents we’ve played are playing with a (defensive) block of nine or 10 players and it’s difficult to score a goal,” the former Yugoslavia striker said. “If a goal comes as early as possible it is better for us, but if that doe not happen, then we cannot lose confidence. I spoke to the players about improving set-pieces and crosses and especially (play) in the last 30 metres.”
With home matches to comes against Afghanistan and Syria in March, it is unthinkable to expect anything other than Japan topping the group and advancing to the next stage of Russia 2018 qualifying and booking a spot at the 2019 Asian Cup.
Halihodzic, though, was keen to utilise the fixtures to fine tune the side’s finishing ahead of tougher tests to come on the continent.
“The most important thing for us tomorrow is to win the game but we have to score as many as possible as well,” the firebrand coach said. “For that we have to go with determination. We will be playing against stronger opponents in the future so this time when we play against a weaker team, we have to score goals. That’s the motto of the team, we want to attack and score, but we know scoring is the most difficult thing in football.”

Neymar the best in the world right now, says Dunga

Neymar is the best player in the world right now and his return to the Brazil team to face Argentina in the World Cup qualifiers will give the visitors a vital boost, coach Dunga said yesterday.
“If we look at the ranking by numbers and statistics, Neymar is superior right now,” Dunga said when asked to compare the 23-year-old with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, who have dominated the World Player of the Year award since 2008.
“Messi is injured, Cristiano is expected to repeat what he did last year,” Dunga added. “Neymar has improved consistently since he arrived at Barcelona (in 2013). He has done all that was expected of him with Messi out. He’s in great form.”
Neymar missed Brazil’s first two World Cup qualifiers against Chile and Venezuela due to a ban imposed for violent conduct which saw him sent off in their 1-0 defeat by Colombia in the group phase of the Copa America earlier this year.
Without him Brazil lost 2-0 to Chile but beat Venezuela 3-1 at home and are in fifth place in the 10-team table, with the top four qualifying automatically for Russia 2018 and the fifth-placed side facing a playoff.
Argentina, who have one point from their opening two games and lie in seventh, come into today’s fixture with serious injury worries.
A front three of Messi, Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez are all sidelined but Dunga played down the advantage to Brazil and said replacements could bring unforeseen problems as they seek to make their mark.
“They will have players out injured but it is still Argentina,” he told reporters shortly before his team flew out to Buenos Aires.
“You lose a talented player but you get one that is maybe more focused, with more power and speed, and they can create problems.
“It’s Argentina, their players all play at the highest level in Europe.”
Dunga has an excellent record as coach against Argentina but the game has lost some intensity now that so many Latin American players are in Europe, he said.
“It used to be a war but now it is a competitive contest with professional mutual respect,” he said.
“They all play together now. But they want to beat Brazil just like we want to beat Argentina.”   

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