With the first round of group games in the books at the Confederations Cup, a clearer picture of how the tournament will shake out is starting to emerge.
The favored sides in the first wave of games—Brazil, Italy, Spain and Nigeria—all earned their three points, while Mexico put up a good fight, Uruguay was a huge disappointment, Japan looked overmatched and Tahiti scored a goal.
Seriously, Tahiti scoring a goal was a huge deal. Remember, this is a country with just one professional player on the roster.
So with two group games per team remaining, which contests will be the most vital to determining which squads advance to the knockout phase? And more importantly, which games should you avoid missing at all costs?
Let's find out.
Nigeria vs. Uruguay
Let's be honest—we know Spain is likely going to beat Nigeria and will surely demolish Tahiti. And we know the odds of Tahiti scoring another goal in this tournament, let alone beating Uruguay or Spain, is a billion to one.
Which makes the match between Uruguay and Nigeria essentially a contest to see which team will move on to the semifinals.
Uruguay will clearly be the favored side. Despite a fairly dismal performance against Spain—the 2-1 loss was not indicative of just how thoroughly Spain bossed that match—Uruguay at their best are one of the most dangerous teams in the world, headlined by two elite forwards, Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani.
Meanwhile, against Tahiti, Nigeria looked like a team that had plenty of talent but didn't quite play an unselfish, team-oriented brand of football. Perhaps they were simply playing down to a weak opponent. Or perhaps they will be overmatched against a more cohesive Uruguay side.
Expect the latter.
Italy vs. Brazil
With both of these teams winning their first games and sure to be favored in the other group game they play, the contest between these countries on Saturday will likely determine which team wins the group.
And if Brazil happens to draw or lose to Mexico—and Italy does the same against Japan—it could very well determine which teams advance at all.
The hosts should be favored after an impressive victory over Japan, in which Neymar, Hulk, Oscar, Fred and Paulinho offered a glimpse of just how exciting the new era of Brazilian football looks to be.
But Andrea Pirlo and Mario Balotelli are not to be underestimated, nor should an Italian side with plenty of experience and capable of slowing down the energetic Brazilians. The 2-1 win over Mexico may not have been a vintage Italian victory, but it was clear the Azzurri were the better side.
This one could go either way, but with the crowd behind them I expect the Selecao to squeak by with the win.
Mexico vs. Brazil
While pretty much every Group A game is vital, Mexico looked more impressive in losing to Italy than Japan did losing to Brazil. And while Japan could easily defeat Italy and Mexico, it seems that El Tri are the more likely side to nudge either Brazil or Italy from the semifinals.
Remember, it was Mexico that beat Brazil in the gold medal game at the 2012 London Games. It was also Mexico that beat Brazil in a friendly last summer, though several of Brazil's important players weren't on the roster for that contest.
Yes, Mexico has been disappointing in World Cup qualifying, winning just one game in the Hexagonal round in six attempts. Yes, Brazil is the more talented side.
But if you don't think this will be a cracker of a match, you've got another thing coming. Don't be surprised if this one ends in a (very exciting) draw.
Below, be sure to check out the full schedule for all of the Confederations Cup fixtures.
|Wednesday, June 19||3 p.m. ET||Fortaleza||Brazil vs. Mexico||ESPN||WatchESPN|
|Wednesday, June 19||6 p.m. ET||Recife||Italy vs. Japan||ESPN||WatchESPN|
|Saturday, June 22||3 p.m. ET||Salvador||Italy vs. Brazil||ESPN News||WatchESPN|
|Saturday, June 22||3 p.m. ET||Belo Horizonte||Japan vs. Mexico||ESPN||WatchESPN|
|Thursday, June 20||3 p.m. ET||Rio De Janeiro||Spain vs. Tahiti||ESPN||WatchESPN|
|Thursday, June 20||6 p.m. ET||Salvador||Nigeria vs. Uruguay||ESPN||WatchESPN|
|Sunday, June 23||3 p.m. ET||Fortaleza||Nigeria vs. Spain||ESPN||WatchESPN|
|Sunday, June 23||3 p.m. ET||Recife||Uruguay vs. Tahiti||ESPN2||WatchESPN|
|Wednesday, June 26||3 p.m. ET||Belo Horizonte|| |
Group A (1) vs. Group B (2)
|Thursday, June 27||3 p.m. ET||Fortaleza||Group B (1) vs. Group A (2)||ESPN||WatchESPN|
|Sunday, June 30||12 p.m. ET||Salvador||Third-Place Game||ESPN2||WatchESPN|
|Sunday, June 30||6 p.m. ET||Rio De Janeiro||Final ||ESPN||