Confederations Cup: The Final

In his final piece on the 2013 Confederations Cup, Tom Bodell reflects on a stunning 3-0 victory for host Brazil over reigning World Champions Spain.

Just shy of one month ago, Luiz Felipe Scolari’s Brazil hosted Roy Hodgson’s England in the grand re-opening of the famous Maracana stadium in Rio De Janeiro. The build-up had all been focussed on Brazil and stressing just how out-of-form the Selecao were. Twenty-eight days later and the same Brazil under the stewardship of the same wily old coach have hosted and won a successful Confederations Cup, with just over a year until the World Cup kicks off next summer.

Brazil had won just twice in 2013 – a 4-0 win over Boliva and a 3-0 win over Spain – before the Confederations Cup kicked off, yet won every single game at the tournament, sweeping World and European Champions Spain aside 3-0 in the final.

So what changed?

For starters, Brazil were in their own back yard and that was never more evident than the final itself.

In group matches, Scolari substitutions had been booed and jeered and the name of substitutes such as Lucas Moura chanted as the Selecao supporters saw their insatiable thirst for style and flair go unquenched. Last night’s final was an altogether different affair. From the off the Brazilian fans were unanimously behind their side and during the rousing national anthem it was plain for all to hear that Brazil had come for a party and they did not expect to be let down.

World Cups hosts famously do fare well in their own backyards – Germany in 2006, South Korea in 2002, France in 1998 – and this is something that anyone who takes on Brazil in next summer’s festival of football will have to contend with. After the eardrum-bursting national anthem came a start which shook Spain to their very core. Brazil were up-and-at-’em from the off and shot out the traps as they played up to the occasion. It mattered not that when Fred’s opener came after just 1:35; it was the scruffiest goal imaginable but it was quite simply the perfect start for Brazil.

At 29, Fred is probably not a household name outside of Brazil or France (having previously turned out in Ligue 1), but the Fluminense forward has proven the value of having an out-and-out centre forward, bordering on a poacher in this tournament. His altertness inside the penalty area against Uruguay saw him prod home the opener after Neymar’s initial effort was blocked, and that same innate desire to be in the six yard box and get on the end of things earned him the close-range opener.

In the age of false-nines, deep-lying forwards and forwards who run the channels all day long, it’s interesting to see that a proper centre-forward can still be extremely effective. By this stage the Maracana was rocking and so were Spain; devoid of the usual unwavering ease of passing and dictating of possession.

Brazil for their part, had been tactically set-up very astutely by Scolari, who had clearly instructed his players to press the Spanish hard and deep from the off. Every time Spain got the ball, regardless of how close the player in possession was to his own 18-yard box, there was a Brazilian player – often two – closing him down immediately, trying to force him into a mistake.

Quite often that tact paid off, and when Paulinho won the ball 20 yards out he immediately launched a deft chip towards Iker Casillas’ goal, the Spain captain just backpeddling in time to claw the ball away from underneath his own cross bar. Brazil’s pressing extended to goal kicks, taking a leaf out of Italy’s book and making sure to pin the Spanish back four in and forcing Casillas to kick long rather than building from the back with a short pass out.

The question was always going to be how long Brazil could keep up the high tempo and extreme pressing, and to their credit it lasted into the second half, no doubt buoyed by the timing of the second goal from Neymar, a minute before the break.

Neymar has had an excellent tournament, and I don’t mind poking my head above the parapet to say that I was a Neymar sceptic until recently. However, at just 21, Neymar has shown a great deal of maturity – not to mention ability – in helping lead his country to a tournament win in the pressure cooker that is their own back yard.

A mention too for Bayern Munich midfielder Luiz Gustavo, who was superb in the Brazilian midfield, particuarly in the first-half. The all-action midfielder was absolutely everywhere, closing down the ball, winning the ball back and then starting the next move. Gustavo might not get the same level of acclaim as Spurs target Paulinho or his more illustrious midfield colleagues at Bayern, but he plays an incredibly important role in breaking up the play and does so extremely effectively.

Another thorn in Spain’s side was the pitch, which even from the outset looked bobbly and like it would affect the run of the ball. It was by no means Sunday League material, but surely not in the kind of pristine condition that the Spanish are used to gliding across.

Whilst the tempo undeniably dropped off a bit in the second period, Spain were scarcely able to cause Brazil serious threat, and once again it took the introduction of Manchester City winger Jesus Navas and bit of directness to make something happen. Navas almost immediately won a penalty which Sergio Ramos narrowly failed to convert, and from then on a comeback looked beyond Spain, who were by that point three down after Fred’s swept second.

Gerard Pique’s desperate challenge on Neymar earned the usually composed Barcelona defender a straight red card and any remote hopes of an unlikely comeback were quashed once and for all. Make no mistake, this is not the death of tiki-taka or Spanish dominance in football. Spain are still an excellent side to watch and more importantly a hard side to beat.

However, we have now seen both Barcelona and Spain beaten in similar circumstances – by getting in their faces and pressing high up the pitch. Beating Spain is about having a plan and adapting your tactics, it’s naive to think you can play your own way against such a strong side.

For Brazil, this is just the start; a re-birth ahead of next summer’s main attraction. If the Selecao can be lifted from their previous stupor this effectively for the Confederations Cup, one can only imagine the motivational powers of the World Cup coming to town. Tom Bodell

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