Tom Bodell’s on the Confederations Cup semi-finals.
After two more thoroughly enjoyable matches of the this year’s Confederations Cup, we have our finalists: hosts Brazil and World and European Champions, Spain. This should be an excellent tussle between arguably the two most impressive sides at the tournament, even if it means staying up into the small hours of Monday to watch the game.
Reflecting first upon Thursday’s offering of Spain against Italy we saw a battle between the indisputably best side in world football right now and the side that have, in my opinion, given them the most problems in recent years.
Granted Spain crushed Cesare Prandelli’s men 4-0 in last summer’s European Championships final – a point last night’s commentary team were keen to allude to at every juncture – but there has been a friendly win for the Azzurri since and the group match between the two in which Prandelli tactically outclassed his opposite number, Vicente Del Bosque.
Prandelli looked to have held the upper hand last night tactically too, returning to a back three and employing the energetic duo of Christian Maggio and Emmanuele Giaccherini as his wing backs. This was the same system that the Italians had deployed against Spain in the group meeting between the two nations a year ago, and on that occasion Prandelli’s side were able to claim a creditable 1-1 draw Indeed, the only change to Italy’s defensive unit from a year ago was that Antonio Barzagli was preferred at centre-back to Daniele de Rossi, moved into midfield from the sweeper position he had occupied 12 months previously.
The tactical innovation worked a treat and Italy were by far the stronger side of the two at half-time, causing the Spanish no end of problems down the flanks with the adventurous Maggio and Giaccherini at the centre of almost everything good for Italy. The Juventus trio of Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chielllini comprised the Italian back three and should perhaps have been comfier than they looked on occasion considering it is those three who line up in Juventus’ back three and have won the Scudetto two seasons running.
Another nuance of Prandelli’s tactics which was evident early on but quickly faded out was his desire to stop Spain ‘keeper Iker Casillas building from the back by passing the ball out to his defenders from goal kicks. Early on Italy counteracted this ploy by pinning their attacking players – Maggio, Giaccherini and striker Alberto Gilardino – onto the Spanish defenders, thus denying Casillas the opportunity to pass the ball out short and forcing the Madrid stopper to go long from his kicks.
That tactic didn’t last long, though.
Such was the success that Maggio and Giaccherini had out wide, some of Italy’s best first-half chances came from balls into the box. Maggio had an excellent chance when he made tracks down the right-hand side before seeing his header palmed away by Casillas, whilst de Rossi and Claudio Marchisio also enjoyed excellent chances provided from the flanks. Perhaps the one thing missing from the Italian system was a threat through the middle. Bologna striker Gilardino – a World Cup winner seven years ago, nonetheless – worked tirelessly for the cause and certainly provided Italy with a lot of the thankless running that Mario Balotelli would not have.
However, the Milan striker possesses pace, explosiveness and clinical finishing that Gilardino simply did not display. All too often the former Milan and Fiorentina forward was so busy working the channels or holding the ball up that he was not found in the penalty area when the wing-backs got wide.
Spain finally caused genuine threat to Gianluigi Buffon’s goal when Del Bosque introduced Manchester City new boy, Jesus Navas. The former Sevilla winger will have given a few Premier League full-backs cause for concern with his pacey and direct display down Spain’s right-hand side. Much-improved in the second period, it wasn’t until the diminutive winger had been introduced that Spain truly looked like causing Italy real problems.
Navas’ introduction helped pin back Giaccherini, counteracting the threat of the Juventus utility man as well as providing an attacking threat for Spain. Had the game been played for an extra 10 minutes, I fancy that Spain would have made the breakthrough with Navas the likely creator of the winner.
Turning attentions to Wednesday night’s first semi-final between Brazil and Uruguay, we saw another side who had plenty of the ball without ever really making the most of their possessional advantage. Brazil enjoyed something in the mid-60s of possession in the first-half of their tie with rivals Uruguay, yet were unable to make the breakthrough until four minutes before the break when Fred scored.
On a complete aside, it was interesting to compare and contrast the obvious emotion of the Athletico Mineiro striker scoring in his hometown with that of some of England’s players when representing their country. Obviously England play their home fixtures at Wembley Stadium, but you can imagine Wayne Rooney being so visibly overjoyed at having scored in front of his people.
In the commentary box, Mark Lawrenson was putting in his usual lazy performance, and when questioned about the performance of reputed Tottenham Hotspur target Paulinho, merely suggested that the midfielder had been ‘alright’ and ‘done OK’. One has to wonder if Lawrenson even bothered to note that it was the Corinthians midfielder’s sublime ball over the top of the Uruguayan defence which picked out Neymar to create the opening goal. By the time Paulinho nodded home the winner in the dying minutes, I’d like to think that the Brazilian was having a laugh at the pundit’s expense.
Neymar in effectively creating both goals – a shot blocked and a corner – put in another good display and whilst the Barcelona man might not have hit the headlines in the same way that he did with his three stunning group stage strikes, his assist haul in recent seasons for both club and country has been monumental. In this calender year alone, he has 14 for Sao Paulo and Brazil and in 2012 he racked up and impressive 29. He’s proving to be a lot more than the showpony-cum-YouTube footballer I had previously thought of him as being.
That said, he did also show the other side of his character on Wednesday, throwing himself around in a manner which we have become sadly accustomed to in recent years, but nevertheless, it is an entirely unendearing trait and one which I think La Liga referees will be quick to act upon.
Another man who showed more to his game than the goal was Uruguay’s Edinson Cavani. Not content with scoring just his second goal in tournament football, the Napoli hitman no doubt won yet more admirers with a superb display down the right flank. A reported target of a number of Europe’s stellar clubs, Real Madrid, Chelsea and Manchester City included, Cavani worked tirelessly from a defensive point of view and showed the kind of work rate which one would not normally associate with a striker.
One note of caution for Luis Felipe Scolari and his side ahead of Sunday’s final, they will have to more defensively solid. The goal given away by skipper Thiago Silva was suicidal, side-footing the ball to Cavani to finish with aplomb, but Silva was not alone in being all at sea defensively, as his team-mates had previously surrendered possession cheaply in their own penalty area.
Spain will not allow those mistakes to go unpunished, and even with the benefit of not playing extra time and an extra day of rest, Brazil will be up against it on Sunday evening. A win for Felipao and Brazil and the Selecao will roll into Rio next summer with confidence in abundance.
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