Two of the biggest stars in the 2013 Confederations Cup took center stage on Saturday, and Brazil's Neymar got the better of Italy's Mario Balotelli in the Brazilians' 4-2 victory, despite a strong performance from both.
The sides made for the most anticipated Confederations Cup match of the group stage. Although both squads have already secured their spots in the semifinals, positioning and momentum for the rest of the tournament was on the line.
Both Neymar and Balotelli had their moments and showed displays of exuberant skill and athleticism, but it wasn't just Brazil's victory that gave Neymar the upper edge against his counterpart.
The new face of Brazil football notched his third goal in as many matches, putting himself in elite company as ESPN's SportsCenter points out:
Balotelli had the opportunity to join Neymar in that achievement if he would've notched a goal on Saturday, but he was unable to—despite taking five shots and drawing five fouls throughout the affair.
However, the Italian striker found other ways to make his mark on the match, including a spectacular back-heeled assist in midair that led to a game-tying goal by Emanuele Giaccherini early in the second half.
Balotelli's jaw-dropping assist can be seen below (courtesy of 101 Great Goals).
At that point in the match, Neymar had been kept pretty quiet other than his yellow card in the 28th minute. But he saw what skill the Italians boasted, and wasted no time one-upping them.
Neymar was given a free-kick opportunity in the 55th minute from an impossible angle just outside the box, and drilled it home with a perfect strike that goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon had no chance of reaching (courtesy of 101 Great Goals).
After a third-minute goal against Japan and a 10th-minute goal vs. Mexico, Neymar had some living up to do against undoubtedly the stiffest competition in their group. And although it took him until the second half, he lived up to the hype once again.
Just as well, Neymar was a nuisance to the stingy Italy defense all afternoon, drawing eight fouls on the match despite only playing for 69 minutes.
Only players of Neymar and Balotelli's caliber can pull off these amazing stunts, and there are only a handful of them in the world. The fact that we were able to see both players make iconic plays just minutes apart from each other only indicates how lucky we are to find such talent on the same pitch.
Balotelli has already proven his worth on the international stage, taking over for his Italian side during last year's Euro 2012 and putting together a slew of inspiring performances so far at the Confederations Cup that are far from over.
But if there was any question before the match on who the biggest playmaker between the two nations is, it should be answered by now.
Balotelli is 22 and Neymar is just 21, so to say that this debate is over would be far too quick. If anything, the debate has just begun.
But after becoming Barcelona's newest star, Neymar couldn't afford to come out with a dud on his home soil in what is truly a coming-out party for his chances of leading Brazil to the 2014 World Cup. And after three matches, it's safe to say that he's wowed his critics.
Now, this may not have been Balotelli's final chance to outshine Neymar this summer. If both squads can win in the semifinal round, it'll set up another showdown in the Confederations Cup final.
Balotelli is world class, but Neymar is a generational talent. That much was proven on Saturday in Brazil's 4-2 win.
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