FIFA Confederations Cup 2013: 10 Stars to Watch
The FIFA Confederations Cup coming up in Brazil later this month, is the perfect dress rehearsal—as that's exactly what it is—for next year's World Cup.
It's an opportunity for the watching public to get acquainted with seven sides who are expected to make their way to next summer's showpiece event and also Tahiti, a football team who few know anything of, apart from the fact that they are the reigning OFC champions.
The tournament also offers a possibility for managers to tinker and players to nail their positions within their national setup or to even use the competition as a shop window for prospective new employers at club level.
All-in-all it will make for compulsive viewing and with that in mind, here's a look at 10 stars to keep an eye on in the coming weeks:
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With his career at Santos now locked in the drawer for safe keeping and his long-protracted move to Barcelona having been completed, this is the first major tournament where Brazil are Neymar and Neymar is Brazil.
Sure, he was there at the 2011 Copa America, but now the weight of a nation rests firmly on the slender shoulders of the 21-year-old and how he copes with such expectation now could well prove to be something of a prelude ahead of next summer's tournament.
Ludicrously talented with the ability to bamboozle defenders and goalkeepers alike, his career totals read 225 games, 136 goals for Santos and 33 games, 20 goals for Brazil.
Unquestionably, phenomenal figures for one so young. And yet there remain those who are yet to be convinced.
They see him receive the ball, drop a shoulder or do a step-over then play the ball backwards. They see him marked by two men, unable to have an impact. He plays against a European side, doesn't score and subsequently is labelled a flop.
Therefore, this is a massive tournament for Neymar as he bids to prove that he can handle the expectation and can indeed deliver. A star in his homeland, he must now prove to the naysayers exactly why that is.
A nation, perhaps football's greatest nation, and many others expect. He can go some way to justifying that €57million transfer fee and his burgeoning reputation with big performances this month.
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A wonderfully gifted technician, there are few more elegant footballers in Serie A than the Lazio playmaker and after what has been very much a stop-start international career, the 28-year-old looks set to make a place at the heart of the Selecao midfield his own.
Full of craft and guile, the Pernambucano native is a wonderful passer with a ferocious shot with either foot. His accuracy from distance was a big reason for his 14 goals for Lazio this season.
Make no mistake, the Confederations Cup is a massive opportunity for Hernanes and one he'll need to grasp with two hands.
With the likes of Lucas Leiva, Ramires, Fernandinho and Paulo Henrique Ganso all potential replacements and all having been left out by Luiz Felipe Scolari, a player with 11 caps over a five-year spell as Hernanes is must stamp his class and authority on proceedings now.
Whether it be in an advanced central position behind a lone striker—as is his want more often than not at club level—or in the deep-lying playmaker role as part of a double-pivot, Hernanes simply cannot afford to falter.
Riccardo Montolivo (Italy)
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The pressure is on Riccardo Montolivo to firmly nail down his place in Cesare Prandelli's starting XI this summer, alongside Andrea Pirlo, Claudio Marchisio and Daniele De Rossi at the heart of the Italy midfield,
The AC Milan regista grew into his role at the San Siro as the season progressed, playing a vital part in their eventual third place finish in Serie A.
However, in a similar manner to England's Michael Carrick, questions continue to be asked about the former Fiorentina man's ability to produce his best on the international stage, despite 43 caps.
A wonderfully gifted passer, Montolivo no doubt reads the game well and has the tactical nous to become one of the Azzurri's must-pick selections heading into next year's World Cup.
Nonetheless, it is still open to debate whether Montolivo has the force of personality to dominate proceedings when things aren't running smoothly for the four-time World Cup winners.
With the likes of he, Andrea Poli, Alberto Aquilani and Antonio Candreva all vying for one starting place (if that, depending on Prandelli's tactical choices), Montolivo must now dominate matches, rather than merely decorating them.
Mario Balotelli (Italy)
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The mercurial striker is currently in the midst of the most consistent goalscoring spell of his career so far, with 15 goals in his last 17 matches for club and country since his January transfer to AC Milan.
Entrusted with the No.9 spot by both Massimiliano Allegri and Cesare Prandelli, the 22-year-old is finally showing signs of increasing maturity, although controversy and the man dubbed "Super Mario" are seemingly never far apart,
Quick, strong, technically capable of brilliance and with a sharpshooter's coolness when faced with the whites of a goalkeeper's eyes, Balotelli is showing signs that he finally "gets it".
Increasingly Balotelli is proving the difference in matches, producing more moments when his side most needs them. His performance in Italy's friendly with Brazil back in March, and his wonderful equalising goal, a case in point.
Now the Rossoneri striker heads to Brazil as the focal point of Prandelli's attack. Once more questions will be asked of his temperament on the biggest stage.
Much of Italy's attacking hopes rest on his shoulders and, as always, it'll certainly be interesting to see how he copes on the world stage once again.
Shinji Kagawa (Japan)
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After a hugely-successful spell two years with Borussia Dortmund, which included two Bundesliga titles, the fleet-footed schemer underwent something of a transitional first campaign at Old Trafford.
Though he scored six goals in 26 matches, Kagawa also struggled with a knee injury picked up early in the season which sidelined him for close to three months. But the 24-year-old was back to somewhere approaching his best towards the end of the campaign, including a hat-trick against Norwich at the beginning of March.
An intelligent mover, Kagawa is more than capable of opening up the most stubborn of defences, be it with a clever pass or dribble, whilst 13 goals in 42 matches for his country shows the playmaker's importance to Alberto Zaccheroni's side.
His relationship with CSKA Moscow's similarly talented Keisuke Honda and Stuttgart's Shinji Okazaki will be key to their fortunes in Brazil, both in this year's competition and at next summer's main event.
Diego Reyes (Mexico)
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The 20-year-old is being tipped for a bright future and when you realise that the Club America defender has already signed for those master scouters at Portuguese giants Porto ahead of next season, logic dictates that he's one to keep an eye on.
Having worked his way through the international ranks, the tall centre-back was part of the Mexico under-23 Olympic squad which emerged with the gold medal at the 2012 London games.
Continued quality performances with La Aguilas have persuaded Porto to spend €7milllion on the defender, who has made over 80 appearances in the Liga MX since his debut in 2010 and was a part of their 2013 Clausura success.
Good in the air, a decent reader of the game and with the ability to play the ball out from the back, Reyes has the skills to prove a success both for his country and his new club.
The Confederations Cup is certain to offer an interesting test to the youngster provided he can make a place at the heart of La Verde's defence his own.
Andres Iniesta (Spain)
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We've all seen the pictures already haven't we? Those of Andres Iniesta at Euro 2012, surrounded by five opponents against Italy and then six against Croatia. The reason for it is quite simply because that's how good he is.
Now 29, Iniesta has pretty much won everything there is to win. Three Champions League crowns, two European Championships and one World Cup—where he scored the winning goal and was named man of the match in the final—to name just three.
The Confederations Cup represents another opportunity for the brilliant midfielder to add another medal to his trophy cabinet.
The man who gives Spain the "X Factor", capable of tiki-taka(ing) with the best but also able to effortlessly glide past defenders to open up an opposing defence.
It was no surprise that when Italy were taken apart 4-0 last summer in the Euro 2012 final, Iniesta left the field as man of the match. He is, to borrow a phrase, as "clutch" as they come.
"Iniesta does things that nobody else does. He is just incredible," said Argentine playmaker extraordinaire Juan Roman Riquelme, speaking to Radio Marca last April. (via Goal)
He isn't wrong. And it's for that reason why a man with 80 international caps remains one of world football's must-see stars.
Juan Mata (Spain)
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An outstanding season with Chelsea saw the Spanish playmaker play an integral part in the Blues Europa League success.
A classy mover with a deft touch, glorious vision and continual appreciation of his surroundings, Mata had a quite staggering 19 goals and 36 assists for the Blues throughout the 2012-13 campaign.
However, here's the rub. Now 25, it's time for one of the English Premier League's best performers, Chelsea's standout star, to make his mark at international level.
He saw a mere seven minutes of action at Euro 2012—the final seven, when the game had already been won against Italy—whilst the likes of David Silva, Santi Cazorla, Pedro Rodriguez and Cesc Fabregas continue to be preferred in competitive matches.
"I think it's because with La Seleccion there are loads of us who are important players at their clubs, but then only 11 can start and so the competition is very fierce," is Mata's explanation for his predicament, speaking to FIFA's official website.
A wonderfully gifted player, this summer's tournament represents a perfect opportunity for Mata to increase his standing amongst perhaps the greatest ever international team. Let's hope Chelsea's brightest star is allowed to shine in Brazil.
Luis Suarez (Uruguay)
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With Uruguay struggling to keep their head above water in the fiercely-fought South American qualifying table ahead of next summer's tournament, the Confederations Cup offers a key opportunity for la Celeste to find some much needed confidence and key to their hopes will be Liverpool striker Luis Suarez.
Whether you like or loathe the man for his behaviour and antics, you can't deny that he is a glorious footballer.
A scheming centre-forward full of guile, tricks and tight turns, Suarez has turned into one of the Premier League's biggest goal threats over the last 18 months and netted 30 times in 44 appearances (all competitions) for Liverpool last season.
For his country, Suarez is now the greatest hope.
Internacional forward Diego Forlan is now 34 and not the force he was when winning the Golden Ball at the 2010 World Cup, whilst Napoli striker Edinson Cavani remains painfully inconsistent on the international stage. Nicolas Lodeiro, the bright young playmaker, is still to fully convince either, likewise Gaston Ramirez.
Brilliant at the 2011 Copa America, Uruguay need Suarez at his best to challenge for success this summer.
Vincent Enyeama (Nigeria)
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The 30-year-old stopper has long been hailed as the best goalkeeper in Africa and he'll have another opportunity to justify such claims in the Confederations Cup later this month.
With 79 caps to his name, dating back to 2002, the Maccabi Tel Aviv goalkeeper—currently on loan in Israel from French club Lille—has been a mainstay of the Nigerian national team for a considerable period of time now also.
Captain at this year's Africa Cup of Nations—usual captain Joseph Yobo was limited to a mere substitute's role under Stephen Keshi—Enyeama led the Super Eagles to a third continental crown, whilst also being selected as his continent's finest in the team of the tournament.
At 5'11", Enyeama is not the biggest 'keeper at the tournament by any means, but he is amongst the most decisive.
Quick off his line and capable of fine reflex saves, Enyeama is a more than solid last line of defence for Keshi's side. If Enyeama is at his best, Nigeria have a chance of reaching the semi-final stage.