As Jesus Navas coolly slotted the decisive penalty in the semi-final shoot out, the FIFA bigwigs must have worn a contented smile. Job done. Dream final duly delivered. As the Confederations Cup tournament elbows its way onto the football calendar as an event in itself, rather than as a World Cup ‘tester’, having a big game at the climax of the competition is essential. With the final of the tournament on Sunday now to be contested between Spain, serial hoarders of titles over the last half a dozen years or so, and hosts Brazil, still the aristocrats of world football, the stage is set. It promises to be an interesting encounter, both as a trial of style, and a statement of intent for next year’s main event.
Brazil have reached the final without actually looking overly impressive. In the group games, despite relatively comfortable wins over Japan and Mexico, Italy gave the Selaccio all the trouble they could have wanted before a late goal from Fred settled their nerves. Again in the semi final, what was expected to be a regulation win over rivals Uruguay, turned into a tense affair once Cavani had netted the equalizer and put a little doubt into the Brazilian mindset.
On paper, Spain have scored a hatful of goals and their group results suggest a more comfortable passage to the final. In the opening game against Uruguay, although it only finished 2-1, a late consolation goal by Suarez puts a competitive gloss on the game that wasn’t really there. A ten goal trout over Tahiti is hardly relevant, but in a reverse of the Uruguay game situation a 3-0 victory over Nigeria was far less assured than the score suggests, with the African champions squandering a string of chances to score. Then in the semi-final, Italy could have been comfortably ahead at half time but for some inspirational goalkeeping by Casillas and wayward finishing, and Spain eventually got over the line 7-6 in a shoot out.
It seems a little obtuse to say that both teams could be described as having more strength in attack then defence; especially when you compare the relative strengths of the aspects of each team. Brazil have a strong goalkeeper in Julio Cesar, and two of the best centre backs in European football in Thiago Silva and David Luiz. For Spain, the indomitable Casillas is in fine form, and in front of him is the strong and experienced partnership of Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos. The problem for both defences can come in the full back areas, where both can have a case of ‘Barcelona-itus’ defending. Whilst Brazil’s Alvez and Spain’s Alba are superb footballers, and knit wonderfully in to the Barca game plan where they have possession of the ball for massive percentages of the game, in international games, their adventurous play can leave massive holes. Italy’s manager Prandini neatly exploited this against Spain by switching to a back three, with wing backs. It was a tactic that worked so well that numerous chances were created down Spain’s left flank in the space vacated by Alba. Unfortunately for the Azzuri, they were not snaffled.
Up front, there is also a similar situation. Should Spain select Torres again, as they did against Italy, the Chelsea player will doubtless be high on work rate, but low on impact again, unless a transformation takes place. For the Selaccio, it’s difficult to think of a less Brazilian front player than Fred. Even the name suggests something less expansive than the South American norm. More Margate than Maracana, perhaps? That said, as opposed to Torres perhaps, Fred is undoubtedly a serial goal getter, even if a chunk of his efforts may not be as elegant as the heirs of Pele would hope for. Witness his apologetic ‘shinner’ for the winning goal against Uruguay.
It is of course in midfield where the real star performers will vie for supremacy. Spain’s established Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets Barca triangle will seek to establish their normal dominance, but Brazil’s tyros Neymar and Oscar, supported by Paulinho will not make this easy.
On balance, although it should be an attacking and entertaining game, it wouldn’t be a major surprise if the sides cancel each other out, being conscious of not conceding rather than scoring. Let’s hope not, but it’ entirely possible. Looking for a winner, I have to side with Spain for two reasons. Firstly, on balance I just think the midfield of the Roja is stronger and more battle-hardened at the moment, in twelve months’ time who knows, but for now they have the edge. Secondly, Spain are just used to getting the job done. It’s a winning mentality that has been drilled into them both with the national teams and the huge elements drawn from Barcelona and Real Madrid. Again, this may change in twelve months when the big one rolls round, but not for now.
So there you are, it’s Spain for me, but only just. Perhaps another penalty shoot out is on the cards, and extra time is certainly a possibility, but come ‘lifting trophy time’ I think it will be the safe hands of Iker Casillas raising aloft the Confederations Cup.