The 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup's semifinals action gets underway on Wednesday when the host nation, Brazil, takes on Uruguay, followed by Thursday's marquee fixture between European titans Italy and Spain.
A lot of stars will take to the pitch in the coming days to decide which club will meet in the final, but based on matchups and personnel, several standouts will loom particularly large.
Below is an overview of each team's most vital star, and the potential role they'll have to play to give their squads the best chance to advance.
Note: Statistics and results were obtained from ESPNFC.com, unless otherwise indicated.
It's just about impossible to quantify the magnitude of the impending showdown with Uruguay for the 21-year-old Brazilian prodigy.
With the amount of talent Neymar possesses, and his three goals thus far in the Confederations Cup, hopes have to be high that Brazil can take home the trophy—and share it with the native fans.
A lot of that will depend on how effective Neymar is, though. This is going to be an extremely pressure-packed situation, because Brazil will be favored over Uruguay, and Neymar will be counted on as the catalyst for the team's scoring efforts.
Neymar is doing nothing to quiet the buzz, either—which could increase his popularity, but could also backfire if he doesn't perform up to expectations:
Should the newly signed Barcelona forward maintain his current high level of play—or even exceed it, as he suggests he will—then Brazil should easily rally behind its home crowd and get to the final.
Luis Suarez (Uruguay)
The other forwards, Edinson Cavani and Diego Forlan, will also be vital to Uruguay's hopes to play spoiler to the home crowd. However, it will start and end with Suarez, who has the best combination of experience and spring in his step left amongst the trio.
Suarez will be the tone-setter, as he has been all tournament long for the Uruguayans—leading with three goals thus far.
It certainly helps that Forlan is so experienced, and that Cavani is being counted on to get on the board at some point. Should Cavani find his form, it will likely be set up by Suarez, whose enviable quickness can create scoring chances in a blink.
Rob Harris of the AP highlights the respect Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari has for Suarez:
His composure and efficiency have been nothing short of remarkable to date. As BBC Sport points out, the only three shots Suarez has had on target in the Confederations Cup have been goals.
It might be easy to choose a captain as another important star, but it's going to be Suarez's leadership and clutch play that gets Uruguay through to the final.
Gianluigi Buffon (Italy)
The veteran captain must do a better job than he did in facing Brazil than in the last fixture of Group A, when he yielded four goals.
That was preceded by a 4-3 victory over Japan, in which Buffon wasn't quite as sharp as he could have been. Of course, the defense in front of him is somewhat to blame, but some adjustments need to be made to avoid similar breakdowns this time around.
Buffon is among the greatest goaltenders in the world. But for the Azzurri to thwart Spain's bid to get to the final, it will come down to how well Buffon fares between the posts.
Uncertainty lingered ahead of the Confederations Cup in light of Italy's 2-0 loss to Haiti, and Buffon explained that it was arrogance that cost them that friendly fixture.
The level of play has certainly increased. However, star-scorer Mario Balotelli has a grade one quadriceps strain and will be out for the remainder of the tournament, according to Marca.com.
Now, it will come down to the defense to weather the formidable Spanish attack, and thus place the onus squarely on Buffon to be the anchor and key to Italy's success.
Xavi Hernandez (Spain)
Maintaining control of possession will be key for Spain to stave off an onslaught from the Italians, and that's why Hernandez is so vital in his central midfielder position.
Italy will definitely maintain aggressiveness, as its last two contests have been of the high-scoring variety. That will provide a stern test for arguably the world's best keeper in Iker Casillas, who is slated to start, according to manager Vicente del Bosque—per Sky Sports.
As mentioned before, though, Italy is decidedly shorthanded minus Balotelli, so that should cause the club to be a bit more defense-oriented—at least in the early going.
This is where Hernandez and Spain really have to take control and attempt to suck the air out of the opposition.
For Xavi, it would simply be another feather in his cap. He set a record back in 2012 by winning 23 trophies—the most ever by a Spanish player. He's gotten it done in the World Cup before, so there's little reason to think he'll come up small in the global spectacle's precursor.
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