Brazil vs. Uruguay: Key Battles to Watch in Confederations Cup Semifinal
Brazil meets Uruguay in Wednesday's Confederations Cup semifinal in Belo Horizonte's Mineirao stadium, as two of South America's three previous World Cup winners—Argentina the other—renew their classic rivalry.
Brazil, led by a vociferous home support, have sauntered their way into the knockout stages with three wins in three group matches, scoring nine times and conceding just twice. Yet older supporters will be wary of their opponents, who beat the Selecao in the 1950 World Cup final by two goals to one, in Rio de Janeiro; it remains to this day the only World Cup match Brazil have ever lost on home soil.
Uruguay's decimation of Tahiti in their final game secured their place in the last four, La Celeste overcame defeat to world champions Spain in their opening match by emerging with a key win over Nigeria before their victory against the Tahitians ensured their qualification from Group B.
The occasion on Wednesday evening offer much as it features some of the world football's brightest stars. Whether the game becomes a free-flowing affair of artistic endeavor or an overly-physical battle, it'll no doubt make for compulsive viewing.
With all that being said, here's a look at some of the key matchups which will take place on the field in Belo Horizonte on Wednesday:
Luiz Gustavo vs. Diego Forlan
As Bayern Munich were sweeping all before them in Europe this season, Luiz Gustavo had to make do with a watching brief in a number of their biggest matches. The signing and subsequent impressive form of Javi Martinez has seen Gustavo replaced alongside Bastian Schweinsteiger at the heart of midfield, whilst David Alaba's emergence into perhaps Europe's best left-back has also led to far less match time in his secondary position.
Nevertheless, he has emerged in this tournament as Brazil's number one choice in the defensive midfield role, anchoring at the heart of Scolari's preferred 4-2-3-1 formation.
Quick to read danger, speedy across the ground, strong in the tackle and an efficient passer, he's been as reliable as anyone in a yellow shirt these past two weeks.
On Wednesday evening Gustavo may have his most stringent test to date in a Selecao shirt, with Uruguay's Diego Forlan likely to start in a deep-lying attacking role.
The Golden Ball winner at the 2010 World Cup, Forlan may not be as devilishly wonderful on such a regular scale anymore, but he remains vital to Uruguay's cohesion. Both Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani look far more at home at international level when paired with the Internacional man.
His ability to drop off the front and dictate proceedings with his passing range could cause a cacophony of problems to Brazil's defence, assuming that one of Suarez or Cavani (if not both), are on top of their game.
As such, whilst Forlan will once again be the man Uruguay looks for to create potential goalscoring opportunities, Gustavo will likely be tasked with keeping him in check. Whomever wins their particular battle will have a major say in the destiny of the match.
Fred vs. Diego Lugano
Questions had been asked of the Fluminense striker after his struggles in the opening two matches against Mexico and Japan, and the subsequent late goals struck by his replacement Jo in each.
However, Fred was back amongst the goals against Italy in Brazil's final group match, scoring twice—he showed a wonderful display of power and finishing quality as he held off the challenge of Giorgio Chiellini before rifling into the roof of the net—the 29-year-old taking his tally to 13 goals in 27 international appearances.
The one static constant around whom Brazil's attacking play revolves—whilst the likes of Neymar and Oscar weave their rich tapestry in a variety of different areas, Fred sticks to the widths of the penalty box—the No.9 may lack genuine pace, but his strength, touch and movement in the penalty area offer Brazil a genuine goalscoring threat.
Lazy criticism's point out that he isn't Ronaldo nor Pele and that he isn't genuinely top-class; indeed he can go missing for long periods in matches, the opening fixture against Japan as a case in point. However, with six goals in eight internationals under Luiz Felipe Scolari, you can't knock his goals return.
Charged with stopping Fred will be the Uruguayan skipper Diego Lugano.
Battle-hardened and a veteran of some 83 international caps, the 32-year-old has long been an integral part of La Celeste's defence, playing a key part in their fourth-place finish at the 2010 World Cup and in their Copa America success the following summer.
Strong, aerially dominant and with knowledge of all the tricks of the trade, he has long been a fearsome opponent at international level.
However, Uruguay's opening two matches have shown an increasing vulnerability creeping into the warrior's game. Lugano has been made to look very leaden-footed already in this tournament, as both Spain and particularly Nigeria's Jon Obi Mikel took advantage of his lack of pace. The ease with which Mikel waltzed past him to score was particularly startling.
Nonetheless, a physical battle against Fred in what will be a white hot atmosphere in Belo Horizonte, may well be just what Lugano needs to prove that their is still life in the old dog yet.
Neymar vs. Maxi Pereira
Pre-tournament critics of Neymar have been firmly put in their place by the Brazilian wunderkind, his three magnificent strikes and array of mesmeric skills having lit up the tournament.
Barcelona's €57 million big-money summer signing will make his first forays into European club football next season, but Wednesday evening will see him come into direct combat against a South American rival who has spent the last six years serving with distinction on the other side of the Atlantic ocean: Benfica's tough-tackling Maxi Pereira.
Now 29, Pereira has long been an important part of Oscar Tabarez side. His versatility—capable of playing anywhere down the right side—has proven a major strength, whilst his never-say-die attitude has long encapsulated all that has been good about La Celeste these past three/four years.
But Neymar, in such glistening form and in front of his home supporters, may well be the biggest test Pereira has faced in what will be his 79th cap.
Capable of ducking inside to create or speeding along the touchline, clever enough to pick a pass and talented enough to destroy his man with an exquisite piece of skill, Neymar's abundance of talent will ask questions of Pereira. How effectively the Montevideo native can combat the Brazil No.10 is likely to play a pivotal part in defining the outcome of this semi-final.
Marcelo vs. Himself
The Real Madrid defender loves to attack and the threat that he offers when teaming up with Neymar down Brazil's left is a frightening proposition for any opposing defence. His energy and skill on the ball offer the Selecao a continual outlet, especially when Scolari's side switches play quickly from right to left.
Nonetheless, Marcelo the defender, is an entirely different entity altogether. In that respect he is the most schizophrenic of footballers: whilst he is quick and likes a tackle, his attacking want often outweighs his sides defensive need. All too often he is positionally found wanting.
As such, teams can exploit the space which he tends to leave behind himself, particularly when the more stand-offish Dante deputises for the more proactive David Luiz. Against Italy, with Luiz off injured, Emanuele Giaccherini took full advantage when scoring his sides first goal.
Part of the brilliance of Uruguay striker Luis Suarez is his movement across the front line and his utilisation of the channels down the sides of opposition centre-halves. Whenever I've seen Suarez at his most dangerous for La Celeste, he often does his best work when drifting from the centre to the right: the space which will be left whenever Marcelo decides to venture forward.
Therefore, the 25-year-old defender will have to show great degrees of intelligence in Belo Horizonte. He can't afford to go forward without a thought for his positioning should moves break down, such is the counter-attacking threat Uruguay pose.
His forward thrusts offer Brazil an attacking outlet, but he must also temper his attacking intentions at the same time. Failure to do so could end up doing Scolari's side far more harm than good.
David Luiz vs. Luis Suarez
Two of the Premier League's most interesting stars, the duo play their football as much in the grey areas of the games laws as perhaps anyone in the game at present.
Both are unbelievably talented, capable of producing breathtaking moments: whether in Luiz's case it's a 35-yard rocket into the opposition's net or a twisting dribble from the mercurial Suarez which creates a goal out of nothing.
But both clearly possess that act of devilment inside them also.
Luiz seemingly adores nothing more than thrusting his elbow towards opponents whenever he steps out of defence with the ball at his feet, whilst Suarez—aside from all his much publicised disciplinary problems—doesn't mind pushing or pulling an opponent off-balance that split moment before he moves to receive possession.
Wednesday will see the duo come into direct contact and could make for an interesting and physical battle, which neither will want to shirk.
Luiz was at his most impetuous during the early moments of Brazil's last match with Italy, being booked within the opening ten minutes for successive stupid fouls on Mario Balotelli. Suarez, with his penchant for dribbling directly at defenders and forcing them into errors, would love nothing more than similar to happen again here.
The Chelsea defender will have to show restraint and maturity, so lacking in those early moments against the Azzurri, if he's to get the best of this particular battle. Failure to do so and Suarez will have him exactly where he wants him.