All Things Must End
Spain's long unbeaten run finally ended at the Maracana where Brazil overwhelmed the reigning World and European Champions 3-0 to lift their third consecutive Confederations Cup. Well, I suppose it had to happen sometime and, having seen how Italy rattled the Spaniards in Thursday's semi-final at Fortaleza, Brazil pressed Spain right from the start, they didn't allow them to settle into their sharp, short-passing routine and, where the Italians let them off the hook, there was to be no reprieve on this occasion. A goal inside two minutes from Fred, a net-buster from Neymar just before the interval and another from Fred early in the second half delivered a victory which didn't flatter the hosts in any way. Yes, Spain had chances, most noteably a Pedro shot which was scrambled off the line, a Sergio Ramos penalty which flew wide of the post and a couple of late saves from Julio Cesar, but this was not their night. It will be interesting to monitor how much this defeat hurts Spain. If they can dismiss it as a near inevitable consequence of travelling halfway around the world to meet highly motivated opponents at the end of a long hard season, they may well pick up the pieces and get quickly back into their stride. If, however, they begin to doubt their football philosophy and look to change their approach, the fall-out could be more lasting. Does this mark the beginning of the end of Spain's reign as the dominating power in world football? I seem to remember the same questions being asked when they slumped to a 2-0 defeat from the USA in the Confederations Cup semi-final in South Africa four years ago. They haven't done too badly since then, have they? My main concern for the Spaniards is that they have played for several years without any significant break. Coach Vicente del Bosque admitted as much, even before the semi-final against Italy on Thursday night. They will now enjoy the briefest of close-seasons before getting back on the La Liga/Champions League/World Cup treadmill which will take them back to Brazil next summer. On the other hand, Brazil and Italy will go into next year's main event brimming over with confidence. These two young sides will develop further over the next twelve months, they will be more solid, more together, each will be a more powerful force with genuine hopes of lifting the World Cup. Other Confederations Cup participants Mexico, Japan and Uruguay will have benefitted from this dummy run and will be well prepared, although Oscar Tabarez's persistence with Uruguay's 2011 Copa America heroes has come under attack at home and there are doubts about his ability to revamp the squad in time to be ready for Brazil. Add Argentina, Germany, Holland and Belgium, all of whom are motoring along very nicely, and there is justification in viewing the next World Cup as possibly the most open in living memory. Of course, nobody in Brazil will entertain such a thought. Victory in the Confederations Cup will be seen as a clear indication that Luiz Felipe Scolari's team are the real deal and, with the obvious advantage of playing on home soil, they are now expected to repeat their success in the big one. Having tipped Brazil to win the World Cup in Germany in 2006 and again in South Africa four years later, I'm certainly not going to bet against them in their ain midden. Neymar, Paulinho and Oscar excite me and, while I remain unconvinced by both Fred and Hulk, Scolari has got them working well as a unit and they can only get better. The ideal scenario for the final was for Brazil to get an early goal to spark a reaction from Spain and the home side took just ninety-six seconds to deliver the goods. A cross from Hulk fell between Pique and Arbeloa and, although he had fallen flat on his back when going for the cross, Fred was alert enough to stab the ball home. It was a scrappy goal, very unBrazilian, but it sent an already fervent crowd into a frenzy and we sat back in anticipation of a classic. But Spain's response simply didn't come. Indeed, Brazil might have increased their lead when Oscar shot wide and again when Paulinho forced Iker Casillas to look lively with a delightful chip. And Arbeloa was lucky to see just a yellow card when he cynically fouled Neymar as Barcelona's latest acquisition threatened to streak clean through on goal. Spain did enjoy a brief passage midway through the first half. A long range shot from Iniesta was seen round the post by Julio Cesar and a Sergio Ramos free-kick was off-target but it was Brazil who always looked more dangerous and keeper Casillas did well to save with his feet after Fred had been set up by Neymar. A pivotal period in the game came as half-time drew near. Juan Mata sent Pedro in on the Brazilian goal, the attacker cleverly slipped the ball past the goalkeeper but David Luiz remarkably got back to divert the ball over the crossbar. It proved to be a very costly miss. Just before the break Oscar and Neymar linked up well, Neymar cutely managed to stay onside, then unleashed a left foot shot which flew high past Casillas and just about uprooted the net. Spain needed to make a good start to the second half if they were to have any hope of saving the game but they got the exact opposite. Hulk held off a challenge in midfield, knocked the ball into the box, Neymar left it for Fred and the Fluminense man calmly slotted his shot low past Casillas. Thereafter it just went from bad to worse for del Bosque's side. Sergio Ramos squandered an opportunity to kick-start a fightback when he sent a penalty kick wide of goal, Dutch referee Bjorn Kuipers finally found his red card in the 68th minute when he sent off Pique - watched by his bit of fluff Shakira in the stand - for bringing down Neymar, late shots from substitutes Villa and Navas were superbly saved by Julio Cesar, while Spain also had a few lucky escapes of their own at the other end. It was party-time at the Maracana. Earlier Italy had won the third/fourth place play-off by beating Uruguay 3-2 on penalties after a very entertaining 2-2 draw in Salvador. Having been sent on a wild goose chase around various BBC Red Button options, I eventually caught the game on the Beeb's website just in time to see the Italians go ahead. A Diamanti free-kick hit the post, struck goalkeeper Muslera on the way out and fell to David Astori who blasted the ball into the net from right underneath the crossbar. At long last modern technology came into play when FIFA confirmed Astori as the goalscorer, rather than a Muslera own goal, with TV pictures showing the Italian had struck the ball before it crossed the goal-line. Edison Cavani began to look more like a player in Wednesday's semi-final defeat from Brazil and he levelled the scores after 56 minutes. After Diamanti had restored Italy's lead with a peach if a free-kick, Cavani again got in on the act when he curled a 30-yard free-kick past the diving Buffon. But will three goals in five Confederations Cup games be enough to revive transfer interest in the Napoli striker? After an additional 30 goalless minutes, which saw Montolivo harshly sent off after Suarez had fallen when challenged, it was down to penalties and on this occasion Italy held their nerve. Uruguay started the shoot-out but Forlan's effort was saved by Buffon. Aquilani then scored, Cavani added to his two goals with a successful penalty, El Shaarawy and Suarez both netted before Mattia De Sciglio saw his effort saved by Muslera to leave the teams level after three kicks apiece. Buffon was then Italy's hero when he saved from Caceres, Giaccherini converted to put Italy 3-2 up and it was all over when Walter Gargano's shot was saved by Buffon. After the heartbreak of losing on penalties to Spain in the semi-final, Italy got some reward from a competition which will have generated a lot of optimism in their camp...but the big celebrations were in Rio where the city no doubt forgot its social problems and partied long into the night. The politicians have a lot of issues to address before next year's World Cup but, for now, the nation will be celebrating their team's success and will be looking forward to more of the same in 2014.
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