Confederations Cup 2013: X-Factors in Semifinal Matchups

Steven CookFeatured Columnist IVJune 24, 2013

FORTALEZA, BRAZIL - JUNE 23:  Jordi Alba of Spain celebrates as he scores their first goal during the FIFA Confederations Cup Brazil 2013 Group B match between Nigeria and Spain at Castelao on June 23, 2013 in Fortaleza, Brazil.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Clive Rose/Getty Images

Now that the men have been separated from the boys and the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup field has been reduced to just four teams, the real action is set to begin, and X-factors will play crucial roles in each team's advancement. 

Between Brazil, Italy, Uruguay and Spain, we're sure to see world-class football in the final three matches of the tournament. One summer away from the 2014 World Cup, there's much more than just a tournament title on the line.

Uruguay and Brazil face off in a South American affair, while Italy and Spain will play and the two winners will take center stage for the Confederations Cup championship. 

Let's take a look at the X-factors for each team heading into the semifinals.


Brazil: Fred

The skilled 29-year-old hasn't always been in favor for the Brazilian national team throughout his career, but as of late he's been playing the best international football of his life.

Fred showed immense strength and skill from the striker position in their telling 4-2 victory over Italy on Saturday, completing a strong run through Italy's stingy defense and hammering one home past Gianluigi Buffon. The goal gave his team a 3-1 lead at the time. 

The Italians fired back and cut the Brazil lead to just one, and Fred came up huge yet again by finishing off a rebound that secured his team's 4-2 victory and made them Group A champions.

Brazil have seemingly everything on their side other than a consistent striker who can finish off goals, and Fred has proved to be just that at times in the Confederations Cup. But if they want to get past Uruguay in the semifinals, they'll need that sort of impact again. 


Uruguay: Fernando Muslera

Much of the talk on Uruguay's national team surrounds world-class forwards Edinson Cavani, Luis Suarez and Diego Forlan, but it's the netminder who will play the biggest role in deciding whether they advance to the championship match.

Goalkeeper Fernando Muslera has come up big for his Uruguay team in the past, and he'll have to play one of the best games of his life in order to give La Celeste a chance against Brazil. 

The Brazilian attack hasn't looked this dangerous in a long time, as it put up nine goals in three matches against Italy, Japan and Mexico while only giving up two goals so far (both of which came against Italy). We saw Italy's Buffon struggle in goal against Brazil on Saturday and concede four goals.

Muslera will have to be on top of his game, be ready for every free kick and play aggressively (but not impetuous) in order for Uruguay to have any chance. 


Spain: Jordi Alba

Spanish defender Jordi Alba primarily lines up at left-back, but you couldn't tell it by the way he stormed into the attacking third at will against Nigeria on Sunday.

Alba netted two goals in Spain's 3-0 rout of Nigeria, the first of which coming on a brilliant individual display of dribbling and finishing. The second came when Alba had nearly half of the pitch entirely to himself after slipping through in a play you usually only see strikers make.

The 24-year-old has emerged as one of Spain's most dangerous offensive players despite playing on the defense. In that left-back position, many quick-footed, speedy players are able to get up on the wing, and Alba has proved he is able to do just that. 

Spain can and probably will dominate possession, but goals aren't always easy to come by for this team, and Alba can help out that cause by being a big-time X-factor.


Italy: Whoever Replaces Mario Balotelli

The crushing news of Italy's playmaking striker, Mario Balotelli, being declared out for the semifinal showdown, as reported by Andrew Dampf of the Associated Press (via Yahoo! Sports), means the starting striker against Spain will have some massive shoes to fill. 

After scoring a goal in each of Italy's first two matches, Balotelli was unable to put his name on the scorecard against Brazil. But he still had a huge impact on the match, laying out a beautiful back-heeled flick (per 101 Great Goals) that led to an Emanuele Giaccherini goal. 

He's proved his worth to this Italian team over their past few international campaigns, and his absence will be hard-felt by the entire squad.

Perhaps Italy will opt to enter Stephan El Shaarawy into Balotelli's slot. The 20-year-old has emerged as a potential world-class player but hasn't truly gotten the opportunity to prove it with the national team.

Other candidates to replace Balotelli are Alessandro Diamanti, Alberto Gilardino and Sebastian Giovinco. But whoever gets the nod will have to find a way to make an impact against Spain, or it'll be curtains for Italy.