SAO PAULO (AP) — Lionel Messi is again a doubtful starter for Argentina in the next World Cup qualifying match against Paraguay.
The Argentina captain scored in the opening 1-0 win over Ecuador but skipped the 3-0 win at Bolivia last month because of muscular pains that have also sidelined him from several matches for Inter Miami in the MLS.
The World Cup champions are due to host Paraguay on Thursday at Buenos Aires.
Vinicius Jr. missed Brazil’s first two games in South American qualifying but is back in the starting lineup after recovering from an injury. The Selecao will take on Venezuela in Cuiaba.
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Argentina and Brazil are 2-0 in qualifying for the 2026 World Cup after victories last month. The continental archrivals are due to meet in November.
Colombia is in third spot in the 10-team standings with four points. Uruguay and Venezuela each have three points, followed by Paraguay, Peru and Chile with one point each.
Ecuador hasn’t registered a competition point despite its 2-1 win over Uruguay on Sept. 13. Ecuador started the qualifying tournament at -3 after having points deducted by FIFA for the falsification of birth information of defender Byron Castillo, who is of Colombian origin.
The next World Cup in the United States, Mexico and Canada is expanding to a 48-team format, meaning direct entry to the top six teams in South America. The seventh-place team will contest an intercontinental playoff for a berth.
Other matches Thursday include celebrations for Uruguay, Argentina and Paraguay after FIFA’s decision to award the three countries the opening matches of the 2030 World Cup, which will be co-hosted by Spain, Portugal and Morocco.
ARGENTINA vs. PARAGUAY
The 36-year-old Messi missed four MLS matches for his club plus the U.S. Open Cup final. He played 10 minutes on Saturday in Inter Miami’s 1-0 loss to Cincinnati. Tuesday’s training suggested he will face Paraguay, but it wasn’t clear whether he’d start or come off the bench.
Coach Lionel Scaloni didn’t indicate who would replace Messi if he doesn’t start. He will also have to make other selection decisions, including whether to start Nicolás Tagliafico or Marcos Acuña at left-back, or Julián Álvarez or Lautaro Martínez up front.
Argentina will not count on Ángel Di María, who is recovering from injury. Nico González is likely to be the veteran’s replacement once more.
Paraguay’s new coach Daniel Garnero will have his debut against Argentina. He took over from Guillermo Barros Schelotto last month after the first two qualifiers.
The 54-year old Garnero, an Argentine like Schelotto, has coached several Paraguayan teams since 2016 and shown preference to more balanced teams in a country where defending is seen as an art.
“We need to play it clever, use the strategy of our coach for this match and take one point. And why not three?” defender Junior Alonso said. His hopes are not false; Argentina has failed to beat Paraguay in the two latest editions of South American World Cup qualifying.
BRAZIL vs. VENEZUELA
Brazil’s new coach Fernando Diniz showed at Tuesday’s training that Vinicius Jr. is fully recovered from injury and will start against Venezuela in the city of Cuiaba. Raphinha was the starter at right-wing in the two first matches but is now injured.
The status of the 23-year-old Vinicius at home has grown since the last World Cup, as he continues to thrive at Real Madrid and fans see Neymar playing in a less- competitive league in Saudi Arabia.
“Vinicius is important for his club, he is important for the national team. And he is only a boy,” striker Gabriel Jesus told a press conference. “He came back from injury scoring goals and helping Real win matches. He is just great.”
Renan Lodi, who is also out due to injury, is likely to be replaced by Guilherme Arana.
Richarlison is expected to start against Venezuela despite his goal drought for the national team. His most recent goal for Brazil came in the 4-1 win against South Korea in the round of sixteen of the World Cup in Qatar.
Also on Thursday, Colombia will face Uruguay, Bolivia will host Ecuador, and Chile will take on Peru.