The 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup final is upon us, with hosts Brazil set to face Spain for the title on Sunday in Rio de Janeiro.
For Brazil, the final will offer the opportunity for a fourth Confederations Cup title, which could serve as a springboard to further success at next summer's World Cup, also to be held in Brazil.
Spain have never won the Confederations Cup (this is their second appearance in the tournament), but they have won everything else lately. World Cup winners in 2010 and European champions in 2008 and 2012, Spain are currently unrivaled as the best international side in the world.
With such historic success of late, they also rank as one of the best international teams of all time. Will they add another title to their haul this Sunday, or will Brazil claim another Confederations crown?
Keep reading as we break down the match below.
How They Got Here
As hosts, Brazil were drawn into Group A with Japan, Mexico and Italy. Brazil won all three group matches to win Group A with nine points.
Brazil beat Japan, 3-0, in the opener, followed by a 2-0 victory over Mexico. They closed out the group stage with a 4-2 win over group runners-up Italy.
On Wednesday, Brazil defeated Uruguay, 2-1, in the semifinals, with Paulinho heading in the late winner.
Neymar and Fred have scored three goals apiece to lead Brazil, while Jo and Paulinho have scored twice each.
Spain won Group B with a 100-percent record against Uruguay (2-1), Tahiti (10-0) and Nigeria (3-0).
Spain then outlasted Italy in the semifinals, winning a penalty shootout, 7-6, after the match had finished scoreless following 90 minutes of regular time and 30 more of extra time. Jesus Navas converted the decisive penalty.
Fernando Torres scored four goals in the rout of Tahiti and has recorded five in the tournament so far. David Villa scored a hat trick in the match. David Silva and Jordi Alba have scored two goals each at the tournament.
Spain's strategy is no secret. Manager Vicente Del Bosque's team relies on a patient passing game to break down opponents. Spain regularly dominate possession in their 4-3-3 formation and win the ball back quickly upon losing it.
At Euro 2012, Del Bosque experimented with a lineup that featured no true strikers. At this tournament, however, he has regularly used a striker. Roberto Soldado started the opener against Uruguay and the group finale against Nigeria, while Torres started against Tahiti and Italy.
As B/R's Jerrad Peters writes here, Del Bosque benched his natural strikers for the Euro 2012 final last summer in favor of a "false nine"—Cesc Fabregas on that day. Peters writes:
Brazil’s defense has been reasonably solid at this competition, but the best bet an opponent has for breaking them down would be to draw them out off their line, away from their comfort zone.
Fabregas, in the false 9 role, can accomplish exactly that.
Another tactical development to watch out for involves Spain's midfield. As B/R's Sam Tighe points out here, an injury ruled midfielder Xabi Alonso out of the tournament, meaning Del Bosque had to shuffle his formation.
Without Alonso, though, Tighe writes that Spain were more fluent against Uruguay in the tournament opener. Italy managed to disrupt Spain's rhythm in the semifinals, however, and Brazil could take a cue from the Azzurri's strategy.
Brazil manager Luiz Felipe Scolari has opted for a 4-2-3-1 formation throughout the tournament, with Fred at the top of the formation and budding superstar Neymar on the left side of the attacking midfield.
In the semifinals, as Tighe wrote in his tactical analysis, Uruguay stunted Brazil's attack with high pressing, forcing mistakes and negative passes. But Uruguay's admirable defending was undone in the first half by a long ball and a bit of skill from Neymar, who set up Fred for the opener. In the second half, Neymar's corner led to Paulinho's headed winner.
Problems remain, though, according to Tighe:
Brazil are still disjointed and easily spooked. Central midfield remains an issue, although they did look slightly better when Paulinho was pushed into the No. 10 role late on.
They don't have a central midfielder capable of dictating the game on the ball, and that could well prove to be their downfall in the final.
At Zonal Marking, Michael Cox praised Scolari's substitutions in the Uruguay game, especially the introduction of Bernard for Hulk early in the second half. In addition, bringing in Hernanes for Oscar "helped maintain Brazil's dominance," which eventually led to more corners and the winning goal.
This wasn’t a great performance from Brazil, but it was another box ticked. For the first time in this tournament they were struggling and Scolari needed to alter things, and a formation switch and the introduction of two prominent attacking players showed he’s capable of tactical changes midway through games. After a very poor start, Brazil were eventually the better side.
Against Del Bosque and Spain's patient passing game in the final, Brazil likely will need another strong tactical performance from Scolari.
Who will win the Confederations Cup final?
Spain faced a tough test in the semifinal against Italy—and passed narrowly. Perhaps that shouldn't have been surprising. Even considering Spain's 4-0 victory over Italy in last summer's Euro 2012 final, the Azzurri had the advantage of intimate knowledge of Spain's tactics and strategy, having played the world champions so often in the recent past.
Brazil won't have that advantage. What's more, this is a team still building, or to use Cox's expression, ticking off boxes. The ultimate goal, of course, is winning the World Cup next summer, but the fans and players alike will be passionate about taking the Confederations Cup title on home soil as well.
An upset is possible, of course. Italy proved Thursday that Spain are not quite the invincible side we like to think they are. But Spain do have plenty of experience in major tournament finals, and Brazil are still dealing with issues in the squad, particularly central midfield.
Home-field advantage will play its role, but in the end, Spain should have enough talent and experience to win.