And The Run Goes On - Spain Now 29 Games Unbeaten
The Confederations Cup has panned out exactly as the organisers hoped it would, with host nation Brazil facing World Cup holders Spain in Sunday's final at the Maracana... but for so long it looked like Italy hadn't read FIFA's script.After two hours of frantic goalless action, it all came down to a dreaded penalty kick shoot-out and, just as they had done against Italy in Vienna at Euro2008 and again against Portugal in Euro2012, Spain's nerve held. The quality of spot kicks was right out of the top drawer, with neither Buffon nor Casillas getting a sniff of the ball as it flashed into the net time after time. In the end Leonardo Bonucci was the fall guy, blasting his shot over the top at 6-6, and it was left to Man City's summer signing Jesus Navas to do the business and stretch Spain's unbeaten run still further. There are occasions when even the most fluent, slick-passing, easy on the eye team needs to grind out a result and Italy certainly pushed Spain all the way in the oppressive heat of Fortaleza. Spanish left-back Jordi Alba's inclination to venture forward was clearly identified as worthy of exploitation by the Italians and Candreva and Maggio both caused problems on that flank. It was Italy who created so many chances in the first half. Giaccherini shot wide, Maggio headed over, Gilardino fired one wide, Maggio had a header saved, De Rossi failed to connect cleanly with a superb Pirlo free-kick, Marchisio headed past when he really should have done better and Casillas fisted away a shot from De Rossi. The tournament had been spared any tantrums from Mario Balotelli but, having been sent home nursing a thigh injury, he must have been going feckin tonto in front of his TV screen as his team-mates missed a barrowload of chances. A brilliant turn and shot from Fernando Torres which whizzed wide of the post served notice that Spain were always capable of doing damage on the break. However, if Italy had gone in two or three goals up at half-time, it would not have flattered them. Lurking in the back of the mind, however, was that nagging doubt that, having been so impressive in the first half, their failure to turn that superiority into goals would return to haunt them as the game unfolded. Inevitably, with the heat and humidity, the pace began to drop in the second half and, with the Italians having worked so hard to harass Spain's short-passing game in every area of the pitch, there were signs that the tide might turn. Buffon did well to save from second half sub Navas, a run and shot from Iniesta came close and Pedro bottled it when in on a 50-50 confrontation with the big Italian keeper. At the other end Pique and Sergio Ramos made it there business to be first to the Pirlo crosses which had caused so much havoc in the first half. Having had the easier passage through the group stage, Spain were undoubtedly the fresher side going into the latter stages but even their incessant pass-pass-pass routine lacked its usual sharpness and, as the clock ticked towards the 90th minute, both sides showed the customary fear of losing a late goal. Half-an-hour's overtime in such stifling conditions almost seemed cruel on the players. As goalless draws go, it had been an excellent game to watch. Play was more stretched in extra-time and there were a few close calls at both ends. Giaccherini smashed the ball against the Spanish post, Pique had a shot deflected over Buffon's bar, Sergio Ramos also fired a shot over the top, Jordi Alba was too high with a volley on the run and Pique was off target with a header as Spain began to look the likelier side to break the stalemate. But Italy held on gamely. Juan Mata curled a shot just past the post, a long range shot from Xavi was touched on to the post by Buffon and the keeper dived to fingertip a Navas shot wide of goal. It was nothing short of remarkable that 120 minutes of action failed to produce a goal. A 2-2 or even a 3-3 draw would have been a fairer reflection on the game and, ultimately, it is cruel that it was all decided with football's very own version of Russian Roulette. Goalkeepers Gianluigi Buffon and Iker Casillas have been under pressure throughout the competition. With Italy uncharacteristically shipping eight goals in the group games, Buffon's culpability was highlighted by the ever-critical Italian media and, had there been an heir-apparent in the squad, I suspect coach Cesare Prandelli would have been tempted to make a change in Brazil. But the big man's handling was faultless against Spain. And Casillas, repeatedly snubbed by Jose Mourinho at Real Madrid, has been beaten only by Luiz Suarez's late free-kick in four Confederations Cup games. The shoot-out gave both the perfect opportunity to silence their critics. But if they'd stood together between the sticks they would have been hard pressed to get anywhere near a procession of perfect penalties. It was Italy who cracked, Spain stretched their unbeaten run to 29 competitive games on the trot, while the Italians were left to regret the chances they squandered in the first half...and of course the absence of Mario Balotelli!!! So it is Brazil v Spain in the final and, somewhat strangely, this will only be the sixth competitive meeting of the nations, their first since they clashed in the World Cup in Mexico 27 years ago. They originally came together in the first round of the World Cup in Italy in 1934 when Spain won 3-1 in Genoa and, with the competition played on a knock-out basis, Brazil had travelled all the way to Europe to be sent packing after just one game. Mind you, they got revenge in no uncertain fashion with a 6-1 rout at the Maracana when they met in the four-team final group in 1950. They next met in Vina del Mar in Chile in the opening group stage of the 1962 World Cup and a Spanish side, which had co-opted Alfredo di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas into its ranks, looked like escaping with a 1-1 draw until a late Amarildo header won the day for Brazil. A further 16 years elapsed before they clashed in Argentina and on this occasion the Spaniards succeeded in getting a share of the points when their group game ended in a goalless draw. Guadalajara's Jalisco Stadium hosted their World Cup encounter on June 1, 1986 and, having recorded all the major games from that competition, I'll be fetching Brazil v Spain off the shelf and will take a wee trip down memory lane to review the match in my countdown to Sunday's Confederations Cup Final. What a sad specimen I am, eh?
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