Messi makes the difference but Argentina, Brazil remain works in progress

Next time the two meet will be in CONMEBOL World Cup qualification, the most competitive campaign on the planet. And so it is Argentina who will set off with a spring in their stride on the long road from Riyadh to Qatar, and Brazil who have much to think about after losing 1-0 in Saudi Arabia to a goal from Lionel Messi, returning to international football after a three-month suspension.

Messi's time with his national team has been blighted by the tendency of the defence to self-destruct. It did not take long for that to happen again, as Juan Foyth was caught in possession in his own area, and Leandro Paredes tripped Gabriel Jesus. It was a clear penalty but Gabriel Jesus rolled the subsequent spot kick wide of the post.

Argentina's defence did not self-destruct again on this day and there are two simple explanations why.

The first is that the pre-match talk of Messi plus two centre-forwards proved to be just that -- talk. In the Copa America, that formation obviously left the team front-loaded. With both Lautaro Martinez and Sergio Aguero up front, Argentina were open to the counter-attack and their lack of defensive pace was easily exposed.

This time, Aguero stayed on the bench, while Lucas Ocampo came in and operated on the right of midfield. Argentina strung two banks of four across the field, and Brazil had so much trouble breaking them down that keeper Esteban Andrada did not have a single shot to save, and scarcely an alarm.

Then there is Brazil's worrying lack of recent attacking efficiency. Since winning the Copa America in July they have not won in five games, their worst run in 28 years. They have drawn with Colombia, Senegal and Nigeria and gone down to Peru and now to Argentina. To make matters worse, in the last four games they have managed just two goals! At present, there are serious question marks over the architecture of the team.

Roberto Firmino has become the centre-forward -- but is proving thoroughly unable to reproduce his stunning club form. At Liverpool he is surrounded with pace and movement, while with Brazil he can be left sadly isolated. At club level, Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane burst beyond him and get close to him, with the full-backs supplying attacking width. Brazil, meanwhile, have been holding the full-backs deeper, looking for the wingers to supply the width and not moving the ball in and around Firmino quick enough.

Coach Tite shuffled the pack on Friday, starting Lucas Paqueta in attacking midfield in place of Phillippe Coutinho. The AC Milan youngster got off to a nervous start, twice losing the ball dangerously close to goal. He then tried to get into the penalty area in support of Firmino, but the moves never flowed, and he gave way to Coutinho at the interval.

In the second half, Coutinho went wide right, with Gabriel Jesus looking to support Firmino. Then on came Richarlison to play up front, with Firmino dropping behind him. And for the last few minutes, big Wesley Moraes came on to operate as a genuine target man, with debutant Rodrygo wide on one flank, Richarlison on the other and Firmino and Coutinho centrally.

Nothing worked. The team appeared to have little faith in its own power of recovery, as there was much more desperation than science in their attempts to draw level, and they did not deserve an equaliser. Tite might be praying for the return of Neymar, while being concerned at the fitness of his main attacking star. He will also be concerned that this is Brazil's fifth straight game without keeping a clean sheet.

Argentina took the lead soon after Brazil's missed penalty, Messi breaking down the right and getting goal side of left-back Alex Sandro, another who is currently going through a bad patch with the national team. Messi was caught from behind, went down and the referee pointed to the spot. The Barcelona ace's shot was saved by Alisson but Messi followed up to turn home the rebound.

Argentina were then happy to wait behind the ball and interrupt the circuitry of Brazil's passing, both with aggressive interceptions and with a sequence of little fouls. But as the second half wore on, a second Argentina goal looked more likely than a Brazil equaliser. Alisson made a couple of bright saves -- but the brightest smile belongs to Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni. In the course of a few months he has gone from an inexperienced short-term caretaker to a permanent coach who is starting to put an interesting string of results together.

These, of course, have come in friendlies, and they will soon be forgotten when World Cup qualification gets underway. But for the moment, Argentina will surprisingly be building towards the challenge of the competitive games with more peace of mind than Copa America