Messi back from three month ban as Argentina face rivals Brazil
BARCELONA – Lionel Messi returns from suspension for Argentina as they face bitter rivals Brazil in a friendly in Saudi Arabia on Friday, a repeat of the summer's Copa America semi-final.
Messi was banned by the South American football confederation CONMEBOL for three months after criticizing the officiating as Brazil knocked Argentina out of the tournament in July.
Brazil earned a 2-0 victory over their rivals to progress to the final, beating Peru 3-1 to lift the trophy at the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro.
Messi, who was also sent off in Argentina's 2-1 third-place play-off win over Chile, missed four international matches after claiming CONMEBOL was "corrupt" and had set the tournament up for Brazil to win.
The match will take place in Riyadh at the King Saud University Stadium, little over a year after Brazil beat Argentina 1-0 in Jeddah.
Messi will return to Saudi Arabia in January with Barcelona, after the Spanish Football Federation announced Monday that the Spanish Super Cup will take place there for the next three seasons.
Despite Brazil's strong recent record against Argentina, they are without a win in four matches and Messi's availability leaves the game wide open.
"We have to pay a lot of attention to him," said Chelsea's Brazilian winger Willian.
"We must restrict his space. But we can't man-mark him, what we have to do is work together to close down the space he gets. Above all, we can't let him have time to think.
"He's a great player, the best in the world. But we have faced Argentina in the past and this time is not going to be any different."
While Argentina have their talisman back, Tite's Brazil will be missing star forward Neymar as they bid to end their disappointing run of three draws and a defeat in friendlies.
The Paris Saint-Germain striker sustained a hamstring injury while with the national team in October.
"They have their star, we won't have ours, but Brazil is Brazil, and we showed it during our Copa America win," said Selecao captain Thiago Silva.
"Brazil against Argentina is always a great game, with great football and lots of chances."
Messi's comments after the Copa America add further spice to one of football's most fierce international rivalries.
"It's never a friendly match when we play against Brazil," said Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni.
"Like when we play against Uruguay, it's a 'Clasico'. They are difficult games, but we're up for it."
Argentina and Brazil have long been two of the strongest sides on the planet, although the Albiceleste's star has waned in recent years, despite Messi.
At times the team looks too dependent on the Barcelona playmaker and if opponents shut him out then Argentina can be beaten.
World Cup 2018 winners France beat Messi's side comfortably in Russia despite a close 4-3 scoreline in the last 16, while Croatia thrashed Argentina 3-0 in the group phase.
Brazil, whose Copa win secured their first major trophy since 2007, will look to shut out Messi in similar fashion to maintain bragging rights on Friday.
Messi may never win a major trophy with his country, whose last success came in 1993 when they won the Copa America, but helping to turn the tide against Brazil would be welcome relief for a country struggling on the field.dpa