After thus far coping impressively with the pressure from their demanding public, Brazil will look to make it three wins form three at the Confederations Cup in a high-profile meeting with Italy in Salvador on Saturday. While their progress from Group A has been secured, the Selecao will want to secure at least a point and likely avoid a meeting with world and European champions Spain in the semifinals.
There were plenty of doubts about how the side was progressing since the return of coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, but so far Brazil have demonstrated improvement looking ahead to next year’s World Cup back on home soil. Notably the man with the weight of the country on his young shoulders has demonstrated that he is up to the task.
On the back of his big-money move to Barcelona, there were justifiably question marks about whether Neymar could produce when faced with high-level opposition. But so far, he has given the suggestion that he could be ready to put his past struggles behind him and make the step up. The 21-year-old has kick-started Brazil against both Japan and Mexico with memorable early goals and last time out he followed his strike up with a stunning piece of skill before laying on an assist for Fred.
Alongside Oscar, Brazil have players in the final third who can cause real damage. But they, like their star are still a work in progress. As he did when leading Brazil to World Cup glory in 2002, Scolari has placed the attacking focus on his full-backs. With two of the world’s best outside backs going forward in Dani Alves and Marcelo, it is easy to see why.
But with the emphasis being taken away from central midfield, it also leaves Brazil struggling at times to dictate the play. Luiz Gustavo often drops so deep that he joins Thiago Silva and David Luiz in a back three. The best quality of the man alongside him, Paulinho, has also been constrained with his well-timed runs into the opposition box becoming less frequent. Still, the in-demand Corinthians man is not a dictator of the play in the middle of the park, meaning that Brazil can often be overrun in that crucial area. Against Mexico, this deficiency prevented Brazil from controlling the game even after blitzing their opponents in the opening 15 minutes.
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In a sense, Scolari is simply using the tools at his disposal, with Brazil having failed to produce an abundance of quality ball-playing central midfielders in recent years -- though they do have one on the bench in Hernanes. That proves an intriguing issue against an Italian side that showcases Cesare Prandelli’s astute leading of a nation that has seemingly produced nothing but passing midfielders of late.
Led by the master of the craft, Andrea Pirlo, Italy also often pack the center of the pitch with the likes of Claudio Marchisio, Riccardo Montolivo and Daniele de Rossi -- all of whom are adept with the ball at their feet. It leads to a fascinating contrast. As was the case when the two sides met in a friendly in March, Italy will look to dictate the play, while Brazil’s game plan will be all about looking to catch their opponents on the break, particularly out wide to take advantage of the Azzurri’s narrow setup.
Neymar and Oscar combined for a fine breakaway goal in that friendly in Geneva and the two young stars of the side will hope to produce something similar in Salvador. Their pace, combined with that of Brazil’s full-backs, could be particularly troubling to an Italy side that looked jaded against Japan. In dramatic circumstances they were somehow able to pull out a 4-3 victory on Wednesday but that will have drained even more gas from their depleted tanks. For that reason, it is Brazil that looks to have the edge going into this eagerly anticipated contest.
Prediction: Brazil 2-1 Italy
Coverage details: The Confederations Cup Group A match will kick-off from Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador at 3 p.m. ET. Coverage will be provided by ESPN.