Hosts Brazil and World Champions Spain have been made favorites to progress through to the final of the Confederations Cup, having been drawn against Uruguay and Italy respectively. Many pundits believe home advantage will play a large part in Brazil’s all-South American affair, with La Selecao desperate to give their currently troubled country something to cheer about before next year’s World Cup.
Meanwhile, Italy will be without star striker Mario Balotelli for the rest of the tournament as he is ruled out with a thigh injury, so it will be down to players like Stephan El Shaarawy to provide the goals against the best team in the world.
Brazil go into their semi-final with Uruguay having won all three group games against Italy, Mexico, and Japan, but crucially with Neymar on top form. The country’s new superstar has lit up the tournament with a stunning goal in each game having started with a perfect volley from the edge of the box just three minutes into the first game against Japan. Goals haven’t been hard to come by with Fred and Jo also finishing well, but there have been question marks over the defense.
Although clean sheets have been kept in two of their three games, some of the defending has been less than convincing; in Marcelo, Dani Alves, and David Luiz they have three of the best attacking defenders in the world, but it is fair to say they don’t defend as well as they attack. Thiago Silva is thought to be one of the best, if not the best defender in the world, but he has not showed the form that had the world talking after PSG’s draws with Barcelona. Fatigue is also a problem. Much has been said about Luiz and Oscar’s long seasons at Chelsea, but the majority of the squad play for top teams who have been playing league and cup football right to the end of the season, such as Dante of Bayern Munich.
Their shaky defense will have their work cut out against a Uruguay side boasting three of the best forwards in world football. They were something of a surprise package at World Cup 2010 when they reached the semi-finals, but now the evergreen Diego Forlan, who scored on his 100th appearance against Nigeria, has been overtaken by Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani. Anyone who follows the Premiership will be all too aware of Suarez’ talent and never-say-die attitude, and he takes that work-rate to another level when representing his country.
His stunning free kick against Spain has been a personal highlight, but his compatriot Cavani hasn’t enjoyed such a good tournament. He has potentially had his mind on other things, with transfer talk linking him with Real Madrid and Chelsea refusing to die down, but his performances have been uncharacteristically poor for a man who scored 38 goals in 43 appearances for Napoli last term. Although the rest of the team is not as spectacular, it is solid and their style of football is easily capable of causing an upset, just as the famous Uruguay side of 1950 did in the Maracanazo World Cup final.
The second semifinal is an all-European encounter between the two Euro 2012 finalists, Spain and Italy. Although the world champions are unlikely to repeat the 4-0 drubbing of last summer, they have rightly been made favorites for this clash. Few teams have come close to them in recent years, and they are in the midst of a world-record unbeaten run of 28 competitive games. Fernando Torres has played well and scored five goals, Andres Iniesta has been at his irrepressible best, and the whole team is capable of scoring goals; full back Jordi-Alba scored two against Nigeria that a center-forward would be proud of. There remain doubts over whether their passing game is “beautiful or boring” - as described in a BBC poll, 51% said boring, 49% beautiful - but it is certainly effective, and Spain are still the team to beat in world football.
The team trying to do exactly that are Italy, who failed to do so twice at Euro 2012, although they were perhaps unfortunate to only draw in the group stage after Antonio Di Natale had given them the lead with 30 minutes to go. They were systematically dismantled 4-0 in the final, and may have their work cut out trying to turn it around without their star striker. With Balotelli sidelined, El Shaarawy, Giovinco, Gilardino, and Cerci will have to impress to beat Iker Casillas, but all four are capable of scoring goals.
El Shaarawy took Serie A by storm in 2012-13, scoring 19 goals and is still something of an unknown quantity at international level. They will also welcome Andrea Pirlo and Daniele De Rossi back into their midfield after the influential duo missed out on the Brazil match through injury and suspension respectively. If they can deliver and Gianluigi Buffon can pull himself together in the Azzurri goal, Italy are easily capable of winning the competition.
It has been stressed that the Confederations Cup is more than just a rehearsal for the World Cup, but this competition more than any in recent years. Brazil have won the last two but are by no means guaranteed another title, and whichever teams line up for the final on Sunday could easily be doing the same a year from now at the end of what could be a historic samba World Cup. Until then, though, it’s anyone’s guess.