Neymar gives Messi a lift on his private jet as superstars face off in World Cup qualifying
Brazil are looking to put ghosts of 7-1 defeat to bed as they return to Belo Horizonte for first time since World Cup
They may be about to lock horns in the latest instalment of Brazil and Argentina’s ferocious football rivalry, but Neymar was not about to let 102 years of South American footballing enmity get in the way of his friendship with Barcelona mates Lionel Messi and Javier Mascherano.
So when the three men were working out how to get to Belo Horizonte for Thursday’s 2018 World Cup qualifier, Brazil star Neymar didn’t hesitate to offer a lift to Messi and Mascherano on his private jet.
The trio touched down in the city on Tuesday to join their respective squads ahead of this week’s crucial battle.
Photos of the trio smiling on Neymar’s private jet appeared on social media shortly before their arrival in Brazil for South America’s “superclasico.”
Brazil return to the scene of the most humiliating defeat in their history – two years ago at Belo Horizonte’s Estadio Mineirao, Brazil were ripped apart 7-1 by Germany in the World Cup semi-finals, a traumatic mauling that sent the football-mad country into a nosedive of despair.
But fast-forward to 2016, and Brazil look to be a team firmly on the road to recovery as they prepare for the 107th meeting with Argentina at the 61,800-seat venue.
A disastrous Copa America Centenario campaign – which saw Brazil eliminated in the first round of the tournament for the first time since 1987 – led to the dismissal of coach Dunga in June.
Dunga’s replacement, Tite, the successful former Corinthians coach, has overseen a renaissance which has left admirers talking about a return of the Selecao’s fabled “jogo bonito” (“beautiful game”).
A stylish 3-0 win at Ecuador in September – the first in Brazil’s history – was followed by a 2-1 win over Colombia before a 5-0 drubbing of Bolivia.
A further win over Venezuela in October – Brazil’s fourth straight qualifying victory – catapulted Tite’s side to the top of Brazil’s 10-team round-robin standings, with 21 points from 10 games.
“I don’t have the adjectives. I’m living the dream of any Brazilian coach,” Tite said after naming his squad for this week’s clash with Argentina. “I try not to think too much about the history. I’m just focused on the strategy.”
Brazil are likely to face the most searching examination of their reawakening against Argentina, who will welcome back Messi after the Barcelona superstar missed their last three games through injury.
Tostao, a veteran of Brazil’s magical 1970 World Cup-winning side, wondered whether a decisive win over Argentina could finally help the country turn the page on the traumas of 2014.
“Would it not be a symbolic landmark to end the depression, the mourning, even if it it not against Germany,” the 69-year-old midfielder wrote in an opinion piece.
Brazil’s rediscovered joie de vivre has been best exemplified by the form of Neymar, dazzling in the win over Bolivia last month, while others such as Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino have also shined under Tite.
Manchester City-bound teenager Gabriel Jesus has also impressed, scoring three goals in four games under Tite.
While Brazil’s fortunes have been on an upswing, Argentina’s form has tailed off in recent matches.
With Messi missing, Argentina lost one and drew two of their last three games, a run of results that saw them fall off the pace.
A retrospective Fifa decision to award Chile a 3-0 win over Bolivia for the fielding of an ineligible player also hurt Argentina, promoting the Chileans to fifth spot and leaving the Albiceleste in sixth.
The return of Messi to Argentina’s ranks should calm the two-time world champions’ nerves.
In other matches on Thursday, second-placed Uruguay meet third-placed Ecuador in Montevideo while fourth-placed Colombia take on fifth-placed Chile in Barranquilla.
Chile’s preparations have been jolted by a late injury to striker Alexis Sanchez. The Arsenal star suffered a muscle strain during training in Santiago, preventing him from travelling to Colombia.
The top four finishers in South America’s standings qualify automatically for the 2018 finals in Russia. The fifth placed side faces a play-off.