Messi's comeback on hold?

Groin injury could prevent Barca star from making Argentina return against Uruguay

From left to right: Brazil footballers Neymar, Dani Alves and Willian training at Liga stadium in Quito, ahead of the Selecao's World Cup qualifier against Ecuador.
From left to right: Brazil footballers Neymar, Dani Alves and Willian training at Liga stadium in Quito, ahead of the Selecao's World Cup qualifier against Ecuador.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

MONTEVIDEO • Injury-hit Argentina resume their bid for a berth at the 2018 World Cup today as Brazil head into the latest round of South American qualifiers hoping to build on their Olympic gold-medal triumph.

In the five months since the last batch of games in South America's marathon qualifying campaign, both Brazil and Argentina have undergone massive upheaval, with each side parting company with their respective coaches.

Brazil said farewell to 1994 World Cup-winning captain Dunga after a dismal campaign in the Copa America Centenario, which saw the five-time world champions knocked out in the group stage.

Argentina split with Gerardo Martino following his team's Copa America final defeat by Chile in June, a loss which prompted a tearful Lionel Messi to announce his retirement from international football. Messi was subsequently coaxed into a U-turn by new coach Edgardo Bauza, confirming earlier this month that he would continue to be available.

But the Barcelona superstar is uncertain for today's showdown with historical rivals Uruguay in Mendoza, with the 29-year-old struggling to overcome a groin injury.

Messi has travelled to Argentina to join the squad and was seen taking part in light drills in training on Tuesday.

However, at least two other key players - Manchester City striker Sergio Aguero and Paris Saint-Germain midfielder Javier Pastore - are both definitely out.

Aguero suffered a calf injury in Sunday's 3-1 Premier League win over West Ham while Pastore has a torn right-calf muscle.

Argentina, who face a trip to Venezuela next Tuesday after the Uruguay game, are currently third in the standings with 11 points after six games.

Uruguay, who will have Luis Suarez and Diego Godin back in the same starting XI for the first time since the qualifiers kicked off last October, lead the standings on goal difference from Ecuador with 13 points.

While Bauza faces a difficult start to his reign against the in-form Uruguayans, Brazil have a potentially awkward trip to the thin air of Quito to face Ecuador.

The Brazilians have never won a World Cup qualifier in Quito, which is situated a dizzying 2,850m above sea level.

New Brazil coach Tite, appointed in June, has drawn heavily on Brazil's victorious Olympic squad for today's game, which is followed by a challenging date with Colombia in Manaus next week.

Barcelona superstar Neymar, Gabriel Jesus, Gabriel "Gabigol" Barbosa and four other members of the Olympic squad are in the 23-man squad for two games.

Tite warned Brazil - who are in sixth and outside the automatic qualification positions after winning just two of their first six games - they cannot afford to assume they would turn their campaign around.

Brazil have never failed to qualify for a World Cup.

"We're not in the qualification zone," Tite said. "Of course there's a risk, if we don't accept to see the risk, we're fleeing reality.

"I'm here because we haven't got the results. But there has been quality in the work that's been done."

In other games today, Chile travel to Asuncion to face Paraguay, while Colombia host Venezuela in Barranquilla.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 01, 2016, with the headline 'Messi's comeback on hold?'. Subscribe