After two weeks of largely absorbing action, the Confederations Cup has got the final most widely predicted and desired with hosts Brazil set to take on World and European champions Spain in the famed Maracana in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday. The conclusion to the World-Cup-prep event preview will kick-off at 6 p.m. ET, with coverage provided by ESPN.
It is an occasion that will feature many of the world’s best players with fine margins likely to decide the outcome. Here are six performers who could make the difference to which team holds the trophy aloft.
Contrary to the stereotype of “O Jogo Bonito,” which has long since ceased to be relevant, Brazil are not a side of free-flowing instinctive inspiration. Instead Luiz Felipe Scolari is attempting to forge a well-organized side that is first and foremost difficult to break down. That philosophy worked in claiming the World Cup in 2002, but on that occasion Scolari could count on the attacking talents of Ronaldinho, Rivaldo and Ronaldo to add brilliance to an otherwise largely workman-like side.
This time around much of the pressure to add that decisive extra element falls on the young shoulders of Neymar. Although he has stagnated in the past two years, the 21-year-old has shown plenty of signs that he is up to the task in the Confederations Cup. Scoring in each of the three group games, Neymar then played a big part in both goals in a tense semifinal victory over Uruguay. More of the same will be required against some of his new Barcelona teammates in the final.
So often for Spain, Iniesta can be the difference between sterile possession and his side becoming an almost unstoppable meance to their opponents. In the final of Euro 2012, it was the Barcelona midfielder’s stunning performance running at the opposition with the ball that overwhelmed Italy and quashed talk that the all-conquering team had become boring.
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And in the semifinal of the Confederations Cup against the same opposition, it was Iniesta again finding space dribbling at pace between the lines that began to turn the tide toward Spain. He will be tightly marshaled on Sunday and his ability to find space running from deep will be key.
One of those charged with restricting Iniesta’s space will be the man who looks poised for a big-money move to the Premier League and Tottenham, Paulinho. Under Scolari, where Brazil’s two central midfielders are required to play deep and cover for the two marauding full-backs, the Corinthians man has had to rein in his natural instincts to get into the opposition box. Despite that, the 24-year-old has still found the net twice in the three games in which he has featured.
Against Uruguay, Paulinho also supplied a memorable chipped pass to set-up his side’s opening goal and if he can produce more such creativity then it would add a vital extra element to a midfield that often struggles to control possession.
Few full-backs in the world can be considered key players for their side, but Alba is certainly one of them. However, it is perhaps inaccurate to describe the Barcelona talent as a full-back. With the amount of possession Spain typically enjoy, Alba is encouraged to play virtually as a left winger and provides an often vital extra outlet to his side’s attack. As he has shown in this tournament, he is also more than capable of finishing with style when through on goal.
It is rare that he is seriously troubled going the other way, but against Italy he found himself in that situation of being pushed back and his defensive positioning was found wanting on a number of occasions, especially in the first half. Going up against his fellow Barcelona full-back Dani Alves it promises to be a fascinating battle. Whichever is able to greater impose their will could have a major impact on proceedings.
Few now doubt that the imposing captain is the best central defender in the world. But the man Paris Saint-German lured from Milan last summer has not enjoyed the best of tournaments so far. In the semifinal he was one of the several players culpable for allowing Edinson Cavani to equalize in a moment of shambolic defending.
Not only does he need to be more secure, but he will also have to organize the rest of his defense to keep Spain’s often spell-binding tiki-taka at bay. He showed he was up to the task in two legs of a Champions League quarterfinal with Barcelona and may need a similarly commanding performance at the Maracana.
He may not start, as he rarely does for his country, but Navas could again be a vital performer for Spain. It is uncanny how often the new Manchester City signing comes off the bench for Spain and instantly changes the complexion of the match by giving his side a pivotal extra attacking dimension out wide.
He did exactly that in the semifinal and, with Marcelo likely to again go forward at every opportunity, Navas could have plenty of space to exploit attacking down the right against Brazil. Given his impressive showing last time out and the 120 minutes that many of his teammates endured in humid conditions against Italy, he may even get a run out from the start in the final.