Can Neymar Lead Brazil to a successful Confederations Cup?
Over the next two weeks several questions will be answered in Brazil. In a preview of things to come for the 2014 FIFA World Cup, Brazil will play host to countries such as Spain, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Uruguay, Nigeria and Tahiti in the 2013 Confederations Cup.
While questions have been raised about Brazil's ability to host a major international tournament, other questions have been raised too:
1. Can a young Brazil team compete against the world's best squads?
2. Can Spain continue their winning ways?
3. Who will survive the group of death between Mexico, Japan, Italy and Brazil?
4. Is Italy on the verge of returning back to their 2006 World Cup form?
5. Has Uruguay run out of gas after winning the 2011 Copa America?
6. How do teams like Japan, Mexico, Tahiti and Nigeria fit?
From a fan's perspective, there will be some great matches to watch, but for the fans who attend, these next couple of weeks will show which teams need to reevaluate and which teams are on schedule to having a good World Cup next summer.
The following team overviews highlight key aspects of teams to watch this month.
How much longer can the Gravy Train continue for Spain?
UEFA Euro 2008....check
2010 FIFA World Cup.....check
UEFA Euro 2012....check
Although Spain did not win the 2009 Confederations Cup (eliminated by the United States 2-0), they have been able to put together one of the finest runs over the past six years that most fans will have ever witnessed. Will the ride continue? During the 2012 Euro's, it appeared Italy was on the verge of figuring out just how to neutralize Spain, but La Furia Roja put up four goals to Italy's none in the final.
FC Barcelona players include Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Gerard Pique, Cesc Fabregas, Sergio Busquets, David Villa, Jordi Alba, Pedro, Victor Valdez; Real Madrid players include: Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Raul Albiol, Alvaro Arbeloa
Rest—Probably the best thing that could have happened to club teams Real Madrid and Barcelona was being knocked out of the UEFA Champion's League in the semifinal round. Players like Xavi and Busquets, both of whom have been hit with the injury bug this season, have been able to get some rest in preparation for the tournament since Barcelona was eliminated from the Champion's League at the hands of Bayern Munich.
Core Lineup—There probably has not been a team as deep in the midfield as Spain has been in our lifetime. When players like Juan Mata (Chelsea), Jesus Navas (Manchester City) and Pedro (Barcelona) are backups on the national team, it is quite evident that Spain is one of the rare national teams where every player on the team is a legitimate option to use as a starting player.
Chemistry—With 13 players from either Barcelona and Real Madrid, one can say that Spain has been training together all year long as opposed to once a month or every two months when national teams call up their players. Going into the Confederations Cup, only Italy can somewhat compare in this aspect as many of their players come from Juventus.
No Xabi Alonso—in the 2009 Confederations Cup, Andres Iniesta was missing from the roster due to injury and one can only speculate what may have been if he were fit at the time. This time around, Spain will be without Xabi Alonso (Real Madrid). The defensive midfielder has been an integral figure in all titles won by Spain since 2008, so expect Javi Martinez (Bayern Munich) to have a great chance to carry his club form to the international level.
Iker Casillas' level of preparation—Due to friction and behind the scenes drama with former manager Jose Mourinho, Casillas was hardly featured this past club season. While Casillas has been able to get some playing time in recent friendlies, it is always important for a keeper to be on the field playing at the club level so that he is ready when playing amongst the world's best. Hopefully, Casillas will show minimal rust and pick up right where he left off in 2012.
Desire—At this point, winning has been as routine as breathing for the Spanish. When the media and fans expect Spain to win every game 4-0, a 1-0 victory can seem like a moral defeat. Manager Vincente del Bosque has been able to do a good job of trying various formations and lineups to keep everyone on their toes. The question is how hungry is Spain now, relative to 2007, when they had not won any major international tournament at that time? At the club level, FC Barcelona was running out of gas. Hopefully that does not carry over to the international level.
Recent injuries to Xavi and Busquets—At the club level, both Xavi and Busquets missed several matches due to leg injuries. While they have both had plenty of time to rest, del Bosque must be prepared to have a plan B in case of an injury to either key player.
Players to Watch
Javi Martinez—With Xabi off the squad for this tournament, look for opposing teams to test the least experienced player for Spain should he start alongside Busquets as the holding midfielders. No disrespect to Martinez, who was integral to Bayern Munich's success at the club level, but his experience of 10 caps for Spain simply pales in comparison to Xabi's 100+ caps, many of which have been victorious, hand over fist.
Striker / False Nine—With Fernando Torres (Chelsea) slowly returning back to his pre-Chelsea form and David Villa still a threat up front, Spain has the luxury of going with these strikers alongside backup Roberto Soldado (Valencia) up front. Or Spain can continue with their 4-6-0 and use Cesc Fabregas as the false number nine. Del Bosque pulled it off by mixing it up game by game during the Euro's, so look for him to continue juggling the lineup with each game.
With a few players missing, not 100% healthy or lacking match fitness, watch out for Spain to have a slow start coming out of the group stage, but by the time Spain reached the knockout rounds, they will be in top form looking to add another trophy to their resume.
Is the Diego Forlan of today the same as the 2010 version?
Despite Uruguay squeaking their way into the World Cup back in 2010, Diego Forlan (Internacional) and company had an impressive World Cup run that led them to the semifinals with Forlan earning the player of the tournament.
The following year, Uruguay sneaked their way into the knockout rounds of the Copa America, only to upset the hosts Argentina via penalties and barrel through nations such as Peru and Paraguay en route to their 15th Copa America title. This time Luis Suarez (Liverpool) was the man of the hour as he led the attack with four goals as the tournament's second-highest scorer and most valuable player.
Since the Copa America, it appears that Uruguay has begun to lose steam, or are they just one of those teams that just cannot seem to put it together until it really counts? In a group with Spain, Nigeria and Tahiti, Uruguay has some room for error with Spain, but will need the full six points from Nigeria and Tahiti to get out of the group stage.
Uruguay could be in for an early wake up call as they start off the Confederations Cup against Spain on Sunday. A draw or an upset victory can turn heads in a similar fashion to what was seen in South Africa and Argentina a couple years ago. Or a defeat from Spain could be what Uruguay needs to play with their backs to the wall, which seems to be the best way to get the most out of their squad.
Almost identical to the Copa America championship squad key players include Forlan, Suarez, Edinson Cavani (Napoli), Alvaro Pereira (Inter Milan), Egidio Arevalo (Palermo), Diego Perez (Bologna), Maxi Pereira (Benfica), Diego Godin (Atletico Madrid), Diego Lugano (Malaga) and Fernando Muslera (Galatasaray).
Up front, Uruguay has two of the deadliest strikers in the world in Suarez and Cavani. Both strikers just completed one of their best club seasons, and both scored goals in their past two matches against Venezuela and France, so defenders will need to pay extra attention to these two world beaters.
Despite the fact he is now 34 years old, Forlan must still be a player to watch out for. While he may not be the same player from 2010 that led Atletico Madrid to a Europa Cup title and Uruguay to an impressive World Cup run, he is the kind of player that will step up his game in big tournament games when need be. In the 2011 Copa America Final, Forlan put up two goals against Paraguay allowing Uruguay to cruise through the final.
While the team has essentially stayed the same by name since the Copa America, many of the younger players have yet to develop and several of the veterans have gradually dipped in form. Perhaps it is a combination of these two factors that have caused Uruguay to struggle in the South American Qualifiers. Young players such as Gaston Ramirez (Southampton) and Abel Hernandez (Palermo) have hardly made a dent in the international scene. If any of the key strikers go down, Hernandez will need to grow up quickly in order for Uruguay to keep up with the world's best. Sebastian Coates (Liverpool), once named the Young Player of the Tournament for the Copa America, was used in a limited fashion at Liverpool
Probably the most disappointing of this bunch is Nicolas Lodeiro (Botafogo). A potential rising star at Ajax, Lodeiro was unable to add his name to the list of famous midfielders who shined at Ajax before becoming an international star elsewhere.
As a result of the lack of development in the younger generation, Uruguay has been an easier team to scout because their core lineup has essentially been the same since 2010.
Players to Watch Out For
As previously mentioned, while Uruguay has essentially remained the same squad since 2010-11, there are no surprise players to watch out for, but if Suarez or Cavani are with the ball anywhere near or inside the 18, goalkeepers around the world, beware.
While no one can ever question the chemistry of Uruguay's team, there has been a lot of doubt about the decline in form since winning the Copa America. Between the younger players developing slower than expected and the veterans being on the wrong side of 30, it seems that Uruguay has not been able to stand the test of time as well as Spain has.
On paper, Uruguay should be able to defeat Nigeria and Tahiti, due to the talents of Suarez and Cavani primarily. But Uruguay will face a tough test with Spain in the opening match and most likely the winner of Group A (Brazil, Japan, Italy or Mexico). An exit from the first knockout round is probably the most realistic scenario.
It appears that just like the 2006 winning World Cup team, the Italian National Team’s form is linked with the success of Juventus and Andrea Pirlo (Juventus). With eight players from “The Old Lady,” Italy has a core unit that will aim to build off its form from the 2012 Euro’s.
While veterans such as Antonio Di Natale (Udinese) and Antonio Cassano (Inter Milan) will not appear in the Confederations Cup, up-and-coming star Stephen El Shaaraway (AC Milan) looks to make a name for himself in his first major international tournament. His ability to mesh well with the likes of Pirlo, Danielle de Rossi (Roma) and Claudio Marchisio (Fiorentina) will go smoothly due to his current chemistry with AC Milan teammate and fellow forward Mario Balotelli.
Balotelli, the charismatic striker, looks to be more comfortable back in Italy playing for Milan as he was able to net in 12 goals in 13 matches after transferring from Manchester City. During the 2012 Euro’s, Balotelli started off the tournament slow, but put forward the game of his life by scoring two goals against Germany in what was probably considered the biggest upset of the tournament. With his club form in stride and one major international tournament under his belt, Balotelli will seek to improve on his eight goals in 22 matches for Italy.
Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus), Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus), Andrea Barzagli (Juventus), Leonardo Bonucci (Juventus), Christian Maggio (Napoli), de Rossi, Pirlo, Riccardo Montolivo (AC Milan) and Balotelli.
Just like Spain has the advantage of fielding a national team of players from Real Madrid and Barcelona, Italy is comparable in that many of their core players are from Juventus. This pre-established cohesion will be crucial early on in setting the form for Italy to follow.
Additionally, their defense is led by a healthier Buffon who won the Serie A Goalkeeper of the Year in 2012 and is in good position to win that honor again in 2013.
To add another layer of strength on top of the chemistry from all the Juventus players, is the playmaking ability from the world class Pirlo. In some circles, Pirlo was the player of the tournament in last summer’s Euro tournament, but it is undeniable that his presence for Italy is far more critical than any other player for their national team. Whether it is pulling the strings from the deep midfield, crisp passing or free kicks, Pirlo shows no sign of slowing down.
In any international tournament, it is crucial to be prepared at all times for sudden injuries and have an appropriate plan B. Meet Danielle de Rossi. During the Euro’s last summer, de Rossi successfully played the role of centre back in some games and midfield in others. This versatility is necessary when things have a tendency to happen in a five to seven game tournament over a couple of weeks.
Italy’s strengths in Pirlo and Buffon are also their weaknesses due to their over reliance on both players. At 35 years old, Buffon continues to be the hands down number one starter in between the sticks. Perhaps Salvatore Sirigu (PSG) has the potential to be Buffon’s successor, but with only 6 caps to his name, it is too early to tell if Sirigu is a long term component of the national team.
Not many teams base their formation on a single player, but Italy and Juventus continue to rely on Pirlo to be the orchestrator of the attack. Should Pirlo go down, Italy will most likely become a team that is comprised of mortals. As long as Pirlo is on the field, one can feel comfortable betting the mortgage on Italy (unless it is against Spain).
Players to Watch Out For
Balotelli and El Shaaraway—Italy was able to win a World Cup with in-form Luca Toni in 2006 and since then, there has been no forward who has been able to truly prove themselves at the international level. Balotelli earned a place in the UEFA Team of the Tournament during the Euro’s and will look to prove why he is worth the gamble at the international level.
Balotelli’s club teammate El Shaaraway could be the missing link to making Italy a world class threat offensively. Compared to players such as Cristiano Ronaldo, the winger has displayed playmaking ability along with excellent technique. While the duo was not able to shine against the Czech Republic in a recent World Cup Qualifier, this duo is still very young and will only get better over time.
In what is considered the group of death for the Confederations Cup, Italy will not have any easy games as they have to face Japan, Brazil and Mexico. With a blend of experience and rising stars, Italy should be able to survive the group stage and make it to the knockout rounds. The two tough matches Italy will have include playing against home team Brazil, in what will be the fight to possibly win the group, and when Italy potentially faces Spain. Hopefully with an in-form Balotelli and pacy winger El Shaaraway in front of Pirlo, it is very likely that Italy may end up in the finals against Spain once again.
Gio Dos Santos, a world beater when wearing the Mexico shirt
Winners of the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup, Mexico returns to theConfederations Cup for the first time since 2005. The big question for Mexico is their current form coming into the tournament. After six matches played in the fourth round of the North American Qualifiers, Mexico has only won one game while drawing in the other five. Mexico will be in the fight of their lives as they face a Brazil team that is hoping to prove themselves to the doubters, an Italian team that could be one of the more well-balanced teams in recent Italian history and an under-the radar Japan squad.
Memo Ochoa (Ajaccio), Carlos Salcido (UANL), Gerrado Torrado (Cruz Azul), Gio Dos Santos (Mallorca), Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez (Manchester United), Hector Moreno (Espanyol), Andres Guardado (Valencia)
Whenever he wears the colors of Mexico, Dos Santos turns into a world-beater; he feels comfortable leading the Mexican attack. While Chicharito was named the player of the 2011 Gold Cup, it was Dos Santos that was pulling all the strings. Dos Santos is one of the few players in the world who has proven that club form and fitness does not transfer to the international level. Despite being a journeyman since his days at Barcelona, Dos Santos has appeared to finally found a home at Mallorca.
Meanwhile, Chicharito continues to be consistent for both club and country. His ability to finish has put him up there with some of the best strikers in the world. With four goals so far during the North American qualifiers, Chicharito continues his goal-scoring prowess. If he gets a touch within the 18, goalkeepers better get ready to put in some work!
Outside of Chicharito and Dos Santos, Mexico has little firepower in terms of offense. Other than these two, the only other players with more than 10 international goals is defender Carlos Salcido (110 caps) and midfielder Guardado (14 goals in 91 caps)—neither of which are impressive goal-to-game ratios.
Absent from this team is striker/forward Carlos Vela (Real Sociedad). Crucial to Mexico's Gold Cup victory in 2009, Vela has not had the best of luck at the club level until coming to Real Sociedad. There have been occasions where Vela got injured while playing for Mexico which resulted in missing several games for his previous club Arsenal and the various clubs he was loaned out to. It was not until he was loaned out to Real Sociedad where his career began to see the light of day. Vela has dedicated himself to the club first and foremost since joining Sociedad.
Hopefully, there will be a day after this tournament where Vela returns back to Mexico, but until that day, Mexico may continue to struggle offensively as defenses will work hard to shut down dos Santos and Chicharito.
On the North American stage, Mexico has been a top two team on a consistent basis. At the international stage, Mexico has always been a top 16 team for the past five World Cups. Given the group that Mexico is in, it will probably come down to a tiebreaker to determine who gets out of this group. Most likely, it will be Italy and Brazil getting out, but be on the lookout for Japan.
Japan preparing to Shock the World this June
During an impressive 2010 World Cup run, Japan turned some heads with the impressive play of Keisuke Honda (CSKA Moscow) who earned three Man of the Match awards. It was during the World Cup run where Shinji Okazaki (Stuttgart) emerged to be a crucial player for Japan.
Similar to Uruguay in 2011, Japan found great success in their version of the Copa America/Euros and won the 2011 AFC Cup thanks to the combined efforts of Honda, Okazaki and Shinji Kagawa (Manchester United). It was during this tournament where all three players played together and Japan fought hard to win this tournament to prove their 2010 World Cup run was not an accident.
With a year to go before the World Cup, Japan became the first team to qualify for the World Cup. Not only does Japan have breathing room to experiment with various formations and lineups, there is no media scrutiny to worry about for the next 365 days—a luxury Brazil will not have over the next year.
Ejil Kawashima (Standard Liege), Yuto Nagamoto (Inter Milan), Atsuto Uchida (Schalke 04), Yasuhito Endo (Gamba Osaka), Makoto Hasembe (Wolfsburg), Kengo Nakamura (Kawasaki Frontale), Yasuyuki Konno (Gamba Osaka), Kagawa, Honda, Okazaki, Ryōichi Maeda (Jubilo Iwata).
Despite several members of the core team returning for the Confederations Cup, Japan has nearly 10 new faces for the Confederations Cup. The mix of experience and youth will give Japan the chance to hang with Italy, Brazil and Mexico.
Kagawa, Okazaki, Honda—the mix of these three key attackers combine pace, technique and experience. All three have been able to shine in several high profile matches.
In the world of international football, there is a level of panache that is required to be a top team. While Japan has several high profile players and other squad members who are used to international play, there is no one player who is volatile like Mario Balotelli—a player that is feared when in form, or a player like Zlatan Ibrahimovic—a player that reeks of confidence. Japan is a proven well-oiled machine as evidenced by their form the past few years, but they lack that player who makes opponents blink twice when he has the ball.
Players to Watch:
Kagawa, Honda, Okazaki—these three players will lead Japan's attack. Honda has consistently stepped up in big games, while Kagawa has one season under his belt at a team that is one of the most watched in the world. With Okazaki as a super sub/occasional starter, Japan will be able play carefree soccer this month.
Japan kicks off the tournament with a match against host nation Brazil. A draw or win will give Japan momentum against everyone else. Given Mexico's shaky form during the World Cup Qualifiers, Japan will hope to get 3 points against Mexico. Just like against Brazil, a draw or victory will definitely raise pulses against Italy. If Japan gets out of the group stage, Japan will have to move up into the world's elite prior to the World Cup.
Oscar—the playmaker Brazil has been looking for
When was the last time Brazil has been under so much scrutiny? While past teams had generational players such as Pele, Garrincha, Ronaldo, Romario, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho and Zico, Felipe Scolari's current squad does not have any superstars just yet. Sure, Neymar (Barcelona) may be the team's biggest name, but he has not proven himself in Europe which is what sets the standard to be amongst the world's elite.
Brazil's current team has been characterized as young and inexperienced, but between the constant experiments by previous manager Mano Menezes and current manager Scolari, the Brazilian team has been a work-in-progress. They look to be finally showing an identity that can compete internationally, but is still a player or two away from being a threat to the world's best.
Youth—Unlike Dunga's team where most of his players were either in their late 20's and early 30's, today's Brazil team is comprised mostly of players in their early to mid 20's. Players like Neymar, Oscar, Paulinho and Luis Gustavo (Bayern Munich) have a lot to prove, to not only the skeptics out there in the stands, but to themselves too.
While it would have been nice for Brazil to have Kaka (Real Madrid) or Ronaldinho (Atletico Mineiro) on the team from a nostalgic/marketing point of view, both players simply do not have much to prove at this point in their careers and it would be more beneficial to have a player like the speedy Bernard (Atletico Mineiro) who will throw caution into the wind and leave everything out there on the pitch.
Home field advantage—arguably the most passionate supporters, Brazilian fans are born as fans of the beautiful game. The average fan of futbol in Brazil knows more than most other fans of the game, while the hardcore fans probably know too much for their own good! This passion that will be seen throughout the various stadiums will help Brazil's confidence. But, on the flip side, Brazil has been known to be home to some of the most critical supporters as well.
With a population of approximately 194 million, Brazil has been known as the nation of 194 million coaches too. As quickly as Brazilans can love their national team, they can be very quick to turn on their own players. Should Brazil start the tournament off on the wrong foot, Brazil can find themselves playing in quite a hostile environment. But hopefully with experienced players such as Dani Alves and Julio Cesar, they can help set the tone for the defense and push the proper mentality up the pitch.
Alves and Cesar, two of the more senior members of the squad, are certainly not the same players that shined under the Dunga regime from 2006-2010. Alves, at one point considered the best right back in the world, has been inconsistent for both club and country and may have lost a step mentally and physically and appears to try too much at times.
Cesar, on the other hand, has simply gotten older and is no longer the same keeper that led Inter Milan to Champion's League glory in 2010. As with most Brazilian teams, goal keeping has been a mixed bag traditionally. No keeper has really stepped up since 2010, thus Cesar continues to be the best option between the sticks.
Two questionable exclusions for this tournament are Ramires (Chelsea) and Philippe Coutinho (Liverpool). Ramires, one of the few remaining players from Dunga's team, had been a regular member of the squad for the most part until a recent incident that apparently bothered Scolari enough to leave him off the team. A speedy box-to-box midfielder, hopefully Ramires' absence will not harm Brazil in the long haul. Scolari has been known to make sure that no player is bigger than the team.
Coutinho has been an interesting story. A rising star at Inter Milan under Rafa Benitez, became was on the verge of turning into a journeyman before making a name for himself in the toughest league for a Brazilian player—the English Premier League. In just 13 matches for Liverpool, Coutinho put up 3 goals and seven assists, which was good enough to generate enough buzz about him for an international cap. Unfortunately, Scolari chose players such as Bernard, Jadson (Sao Paulo) and Jean (Fluminense) who did well in the Brazilean league.
Do not write off these two players just yet as there will be plenty of friendlies to come prior to the World Cup.
Players to Watch:
Oscar and Hernanes—Originally, Ganso (Sao Paulo) was penciled in to be the playmaker for Brazil. Injuries and inconsistency prevented Ganso from meeting expectations. Since then, several midfielders have come and went. Even Hernanes was given a shot early on but had a few shaky performances. Luckily, his form at Lazio made Scolari bring him back into the mix and the results with him and Oscar have begun to look promising.
Fred—No stranger to the European style of play, Fred has been viewed as the best current number nine by supporters by default. Despite an impressive goal to game ratio, Fred does not generate the same level of confidence in fans that Luis Fabiano (Sao Paulo) did when he shined under Dunga. As long as Fred continues to score goals in a Pippo Inzaghi-like fashion, he should be able to become the full time center forward.
Marcelo—Surprisingly, this will be the left back's first official FIFA tournament in the yellow shirt. One would have thought that Marcelo would have been the regular left back under Dunga, but that was not the case. With 228 games for Real Madrid under his belt by the age of 25, it is quite shocking that Marcelo has only 20 caps for Brazil, especially at the position that has been a revolving door since legendary left back Roberto Carlos left the international scene in 2006. Look for Marcelo to cement his place in the squad during this tournament.
Brazil is the defending champion for this edition of the Confederations Cup (2009 and 2005). Even though each game will be a home game for the Brazilians, their group matchups will all be dog fights. Mexico has been known to have Brazil's number in many tournaments in the past (2012 Olympic Final, 2007 Copa America, 1999 Confederations Cup). Italy will be looking to Pirlo and Balotelli to make a run at Brazil, while Japan seeks to be that team that slips through under the radar.
If Brazil can get out of the group stage, they better hope to face a team like Uruguay in the first knockout round. This Brazil team is simply not ready yet to defeat a team like Spain. Chances are they will struggle against Italy and will have a good match against Mexico and Japan before being knocked out in the elimination rounds.
Sorry Brazil, this tournament will not be your time, but will serve as a good learning ground in preparation for the World Cup.
Here we go...Confederations Cup Time!
Between the group of death (Mexico, Brazil, Italy and Japan) and the other group (Spain, Uruguay, Tahiti and Nigeria), this should be an exciting Confederations Cup to follow.
In recent news, Nigeria—winners of the 2013 African Nations Cup, almost did not fly to Brazil for the tournament amidst internal politics regarding pay. Sounds like Nigeria, who also put forth an inexperienced squad, will play their three group stages and quickly fly back to Africa.
The same can be said for Tahiti. Despite fielding a team comprised of mostly domestic players from teams such as AS Dragon and AS Tefana, there is no player with more than 30 caps at the international level.
Some teams will use this tournament to test out new players, others will use this tournament as a gauge of where they stand internationally. Nevertheless, expect to see fast-paced action, tough defense, bad officiating and plenty of drama to round out the 2012-13 football year.
See you in Brazil!
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