Confederations Cup 2013: Complete Preview for Semifinal Action
In a rare feat at tournaments of this format, both groups at the 2013 Confederations Cup ended with clear first, second, third and fourth-place teams.
In both cases, Groups A and B, the top team went 3-0, the runner-up went 2-1, the third-place team went 1-2 and the cellar dweller went winless at 0-3.
That may seem frivolous but its not: With no ties and no goal-differential controversy, there can be no doubt about the merit of this semifinal. The right teams made it this far—the four sides playing the best football in Brazil.
This sets us up for some thrilling action in the next three matches. Remember: In the same round of this very tournament in 2009—its last occurrence—the United States upset Spain 2-0, ending the Spanish's record-tying 35-game unbeaten streak in the process.
Does Italy have a similar upset in store? Can Brazil repeat as Confederations Cup champion on its home turf? Will Uruguay's desperation pay dividends?
Let's take a comprehensive look at the semfinal matchups and find out:
Semifinal #1: Brazil (3-0-0) vs. Uruguay (2-1-0)
Context: Brazil is being counted on to win this tournament, and so far they're off to a great start. Three straight wins in the group round, all by two or more goals, has the hometown fans electrified in the World Cup.
Since the tournament's inception in 1992, Brazil has won three times, more than any other country. That includes back-to-back wins in 2005 and 2009. A win here would make it the first team to three-peat a Confederations Cup, breaking the record of two straight which it shares with France (2001 and 2003).
For Uruguay, this tournament is, perhaps, an all-or-nothing endeavor. If it doesn't right the ship in World Cup qualifying, this could be the only major tournament it plays this four-year cycle.
Five points behind Ecuador and Chile in CONMEBOL qualifying, Uruguay is battling Venezuela, whom its tied with, for the right to play an AFC team in a two-leg qualification playoff. If it reaches that playoff it would be heavily favored, but Uruguay's struggles make bowing out before that distinctly plausible.
A win—or at least a good fight—against Brazil would improve its confidence and momentum going forward.
Players to Watch: For Brazil, it can't be anyone but Neymar, who has scored in all three matches thus far this tournament. He's scored in a variety of ways, too, flashing a deadly finish in both the run of play and on set pieces.
The future Barcelona man has acclimated himself well with the Brazilian fans, and has provided them—along with Barca supporters—plenty of reasons to be excited for the next 14 months.
Uruguay will only go as far as Luis Suarez takes it. After another deft season at Liverpool, Suarez had a nice group stage, tying Neymar with three goals scored. Granted, two of those came against listless Tahiti, but the other came against Spain, who rarely ever surrenders in these tournaments.
It should also be interesting to track Diego Forlan, who only started one match in group play. Uruguay's former best player has lost a step (or five), but he's still one of the most dangerous finishers in football. Brazil's defense has looked creaky, so Forlan, already with one goal this tournament, might get some open looks.
Prediction: Brazil 3 - 1 Uruguay
Semifinal #2: Spain (3-0-0) vs. Italy (2-1-0)
Context: Spain, the world's prohibitive "best team," is looking to avenge an upset in this round four years ago; as noted above, the Americans shocked the world with a 2-0 victory in South Africa.
But this one is even more personal. Spain vs. Italy is a rematch of the final at Euro 2012, where Spain piled on four goals in a 4-0 victory. Italy, a proud football nation, is still traumatized by the defeat, and looking to avenge it in a big, showy way.
Should Spain go on to win the whole thing, it, in conjunction with the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012, would be the senior team's third consecutive major tournament victory. Italy is looking to block Spain's legitimate claim to the title of "best team ever."
Players to Watch: For Spain, everything starts in the midfield. And in the Spanish midfield, though there's a plethora of options, everything starts with Xavi.
Neymar's future teammate at Barcelona, Xavi is, and has been for a while, the best passer in all of football. He is precise and creative, setting up Spain's potent possession game, but also daring to move forward with bravery.
Italy's defense has looked shaky all tournament, allowing three goals to Japan (that easily could have been more), and Xavi always exploits poor coverage.
Which brings us to Italy, whose defense will be far more important than its offense. And the anchor of that defense, as he's been for oh so long, is keeper Gianluigi Buffon.
Buffon has looked a bit long in the tooth in Brazil, though, not that his defense has done him any favors. Still, ceding eight goals in three games is not like the veteran keeper, and against Spain he'll face the best offense he's seen all tournament.
With Mario Balotelli sidelined by a thigh injury, Italy loses its most powerful offensive weapon. Its best—nay, only—chance of advancing is keeping Spain at or under two goals.
Prediction: Spain 4 - 2 Italy
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