Argentina and Brazil go into their semi-final at the FIFA World Youth Championship Netherlands 2005 in good heart after quarter-final victories over Spain (3-1) and Germany (2-1 aet). Following a troubled start to the competition, the teams coached by Francisco Ferraro and Rene Weber have matured nicely and now head into the latest South American superclasico in Utrecht on Tuesday with the fear of failure lifted from their minds.
Having won the U-20 tournament a record four times each, the Conmebol giants will be gunning for a fifth title to entertain bragging rights in the region. New boys Ferraro and Weber, who took over from Hugo Tocalli and Marcos Paqueta respectively, had spent the first few days struggling to impose their method. The Albiceleste looked a side shorn of ideas when they went down to the United States in their first match, while the Auriverde appeared to lack punch and pizzazz as they opened up goalless against Nigeria.
Slowly but surely though they have built up the strength of character to cope with the weight of expectation. Led by the gifted Lionel Messi, Argentina have found a lethal blend, adding the fizz to their sturdy defensive work. Individualism has been strangely absent from the boys from Brazil but their stinginess - the goal Renan conceded against Germany was the selecao's first in 608 minutes of football - is becoming an increasingly characteristic trait.
"Our first goal was to get past the group stage," said the ever-serious Ferraro. "Our second to get to the semi-finals and stay until the end. We have achieved those so now we are totally relaxed. Brazil is a powerful opponent but we hope to have the necessary luck to carry us through."
More open, Weber is no less determined. "It is a classico and we'll go into it without pressure," he smiled from the team hotel in Utrecht. "I can see it being a very good game, but definitely a hard game. Argentina are already playing a pressing game and we know they won't give us an inch."
The danger for the champions has to be teen sensation Messi. Substitute for the opening match, the Barcelona starlet, who turned 18 only last week, has risen to the challenge fearlessly, almost single-handedly pulling his nation through the stiffest of challenges. It is said in hushed tones but his dribbles, his individual strikes and his left foot have many observers comparing him with a young Diego Maradona, not least the player himself.
"The truth is that having the world's best player praise you is a great honour," the slightly built Messi confessed. "It gives you the will to keep on working and to learn new things."
Messi also appears to be the man for an occasion. He has scored goals in both knockout rounds and, ten minutes after coming on as substitute, the winner when Argentina defeated Brazil 2-1 in the South American Youth Championship earlier this year.
An extra day of rest, the Brazilian coach is unconcerned about that defeat in Manzanares, Colombia.
"It was a strange match as I recall. We controlled the first half but seemed to lose energy in the final half an hour," said Weber with a shrug, "Messi comes alive in the last third, but I think we have the players to cope this time."
Brazil's own current top scorer plays at right-back. Rafael is a Brazilian right-back though, never letting an opportunity to bomb forward pass him by. His strikes, a penalty and the extra-time winner against Germany in the quarter-finals, have also come at crucial moments.
Although they have scored one more goal than their southern neighbours in the finals, Brazil's statistics (77 shots, 6 successes) reveal a worrying tendency in front of goal. For the semi-finals, they will also have to do without the suspended Atletico Paranaense striker Diego Tardelli, scorer of the equalise versus Germany.
"It's always nice to score," admits Rafael, who plays for Paranaense's city rivals Coritiba. "But our strikers just haven't had the luck in front of goal. That will change though and could happen against Argentina."
Ernane is another injury casualty and will also miss the big match, a repeat of the semi-final which Brazil won two years ago in the United Arab Emirates. If that result wasn't enough to boost confidence in the selecao camp, another record certainly will be. Champions in the Soviet Union in 1985 and Portugal in 1991, Brazil have not lost in 17 matches, winning 14 and drawing three, on European soil in the competition. Argentina, of course, are just the team to break records.
South American eyes will be looking towards the Netherlands to see who will be the victors this time around when the first of a double bill of superclasicos kicks off.