Confederations Cup: Ranking the Favourites for Glory in 2013
The Confederations Cup might not be everybody's favourite competition, but it is most certainly taken seriously by those involved just a year before the World Cup itself.
To qualify for the tournament, a team must have shown itself to be the either best of their continent, the best in the world or simply be the host. With just eight teams involved, all of whom are there by merit, the potential for upset is huge.
So, with just eighteen months until the World Cup comes round once more, which sides will head into this summer's warm-up event as favourites to come away with glory?
There is simply no question who the title favourites are. Despite five-time world champions Brazil hosting the tournament, it would take a brave man to consider betting against reigning world and European champions Spain.
The Confederations Cup is the only prize this current generation of La Roja players have failed to win since the beginning of their dominance in 2008, and few would bet against them adding the title to their collection at the second time of asking.
Football fans the world wide are familiar with what approach we can come to expect from the Spanish side, and their inimitable style has served them well over a long period, bringing sustained success.
They may have lost to a Jozy Altidore-inspired USA at the semi-final stage in South Africa four years ago but, it would be a massive surprise if anyone were to beat the world champions this time around.
Ranking Italy among the contenders is less simple. After all, they finished second at the European Championship last summer, but did so with just two wins to their name in the six matches they played.
Results since the summer have also been mixed. Head coach Cesare Prandelli has been exploring younger options in friendly encounters, and defeats to England and France have followed. However, when it has mattered, World Cup qualification fixtures have been dispatched with little fuss.
Italy will be hard to beat, as they were in Poland and Ukraine last summer. Prandelli's side will operate with a compact three-man central midfield unit ahead of a back four, offering plenty of protection ahead of Gigi Buffon.
It will then be up to the likes of Pablo Osvaldo, Stephan El Shaarawy and Sebastian Giovinco to ensure that the Azzurri score enough goals at the other end.
Crucial to Italy's hopes will be topping their group ahead of Brazil and Mexico. If they finish in second place in Group A, a likely semi-final meeting with Spain awaits.
Brazil are perhaps the most difficult team to predict in the entire competition, as we still have little idea how the hosts will lineup and perform under new manager Luiz Felipe Scolari.
Despite their past glories, victory in the Confederations Cup this time around will undoubtedly be very difficult for the Seleção. Scolari is only just beginning his search for the right group of players to take them into the 2014 World Cup, and it is that competition that must be the focus for Brazil at present.
Should they pick the right balance of squad, Brazil could certainly go on to challenge for glory given the significance of home advantage—particularly if they can count upon an inspired Neymar, Oscar or maybe even Ronaldinho.
The problem is that based on recent form, progression from the group stage could be a challenge.
A semi-final spot or a runner-up medal would be a platform for Scolari to build from ahead of 2014. Most important for Brazil, though, is that the competition answers some of the outstanding questions regarding selection ahead of the World Cup.
No one will be looking forward to facing Mexico next summer, with the Gold Cup champions clearly on the rise as a force in world football—as evidenced by their recent successes at Olympic and Under-17 World Cup levels.
The senior side have not had a bad time of it either, and manager Jose Manuel de la Torre deserves great credit for building such a highly efficient unit of players who are all familiar with their roles and responsibilities within the system.
De la Torre's side are not the most glamorous in the competition—indeed, it can easily be argued that Uruguay have more star power than El Tri. However, with a thriving domestic league that is churning out a consistent supply of talent combined with a selection of European based stars, Mexico have built one of the best all-around squads in world football.
A tough group containing Italy and Brazil awaits, but with neither of the more established sides infallible at present, Mexico will fancy their chances of progression to the latter stages of the tournament.
Oscar Tabarez's 2011 Copa America winners have been in dire form over the past six months, winning just one of their last six matches. That win, though, came in impressive style in their most recent outing away in Poland.
They may not be in the best of form, but with the truly world-class talents of Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez in their midst, Uruguay can never be underestimated. They need, though, to rekindle the solid backbone that saw them to success in Argentina last summer.
Last week's draw was kind to Uruguay, who will fancy their chances of a semi-final berth after being grouped with Spain, the eventual African champions, and Tahiti—particularly in light of their greater knowledge and experience of Brazilian conditions.
Tabarez's side have shown themselves to be difficult to beat in knockout rounds over the past couple of tournaments, and should they progress, this experience could be crucial. It would be a mistake to rule them out of medal contention.
Japan are one of the most intriguing sides in international football. The East Asians currently possess the most talented side in their history, packed with technically-gifted players who are shining in the higher levels of European football.
Recent results have been excellent, and in qualification, the Samurai Blue are sailing on their merry path to the 2014 World Cup with little concern for their Asian counterparts.
However, following a stunning 1-0 win over France in the Stade de France in October, Alberto Zaccheroni's side were ruthlessly exposed in a 4-0 defeat to Brazil. It was a painful setback for a side who were riding high on confidence.
Japan took the game to the Seleção and were punished by the pace and skill of the Brazilian counter-attack. For all their technical abilities, this remains a young side that may need to sacrifice their natural attacking philosophy to succeed against the world's best.
Japan have been handed the tougher of the two groups and will hope to emerge from the tournament with a couple of creditable results to their name as they prepare for the bigger prize a year later.
7/8. The Others
We will not know the identity of the African champions until the end of the Cup of Nations in early February next year. They will, though, doubtlessly be hoping that they can secure progression from the group stage—even if it goes against general expectation.
With the African side probably ranking somewhere near Japan in terms of expectation at the event, that leaves Oceania qualifiers Tahiti as the tournament's underdogs. They are simply not expected to challenge.
A handful of largely unknown foreign-based players does little to detract from the suspicion that Tahiti will end up as the whipping boys of Group B, and their qualification above New Zealand comes as a massive surprise.
Hopefully for the Polynesians, they can put up enough resistance in their group to return home with their reputation as a footballing nation greatly enhanced.