BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil (AP) — Brazil players have made it clear they will not fear Argentina’s Lionel Messi when the two sides meet for their high-profile World Cup qualifier on Thursday.
Messi’s return from injury prompted an exchange between the two sides on Tuesday after Argentina striker Lucas Pratto, who plays for Brazilian club Atletico Mineiro, said the hosts were frightened of the five-time world player of the year.
“They know that Leo is very tough. They are a little scared,” Pratto told Argentine newspaper Ole. “Or maybe more than a little.”
His claim was flatly denied by Brazil captain Dani Alves, one of the Argentina star’s closest friends and a former teammate at Barcelona.
“There is no such thing as being scared in football. There is respect for Messi and for Argentina. And they feel the same about our players, our team,” the right back said after Tuesday’s training session at the Mineirao stadium in Belo Horizonte.
Winger Douglas Costa also kept a sense of perspective, saying: “(Brazil) has to do what it has been doing – regardless of Argentina.”
However, Brazil defender Marquinhos added a note of caution about Messi, saying: “We have to be perfect. With the tiniest mistake, he can dribble, he can score.”
Messi has 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 scored in a 1-0 victory over Uruguay in September in the only match he’s played under Argentina coach Edgardo Bauza.
Thursday’s game takes place in the Mineirao stadium where Brazil was humiliated two years ago in a 7-1 loss to Germany in the World Cup semifinals.
All 62,000 seats are expected to be taken as the hosts focus on containing Messi, rather than the ghosts of the 2014 World Cup debacle.
“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.”
Alves said Brazil will have a tough time stopping “near perfect” Messi.
“His greatness comes from the fact he doesn’t believe he is that great, it is what makes him different from the rest,” the defender said.
Alves added that he will wear the number 4 shirt in the game as a tribute to Brazil great Carlos Alberto Torres, who died in October.
Argentina, World Cup runners-up two years ago against Germany, is five points behind group leader Brazil. It needs points on 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.