BY WASIM PARKAR – FAN FUEL BLOGGER
As the footballers of Italy and Spain slotted calm penalty after penalty in a nerve-wracking shootout in the FIFA Confederations Cup semi, one really started to feel neither team deserved to lose. Finally, as Leonardo Bonucci skied a penalty, and Jesus Navas arrowed the subsequent penalty into the right hand corner of Gianluigi Buffon’s net, Spain won 7-6 and set up a dream final against Brazil. I look at some of the key factors in what promises to be an engrossing final.
Brazil’s right flank against Jordi Alba
Not many teams in the recent history of the international game can claim to possess a left-back who acts as an important point of the attack like Jordi Alba. Most full-backs in the current game support the attack usually behind a winger, and will often cross on the overlap. Alba goes even further. With his blistering pace, Alba often makes darting runs to get on the end of through balls, chipping in with his fair share of goals and one-on-one’s with goalkeepers. In addition, he is extremely comfortable in the box, either dribbling past opposition full-backs or setting up chances for his teammates with teasing balls across the penalty area.
The downside of Alba’s attacking threat is that when on the rare occasions that Spain does lose the ball, they are vulnerable to attacks on the left flank of their defence. In the semi-final against Italy, the Azzurri consistently created chances down Alba’s wing. While Alba does track back, he is susceptible to one-on-ones and even more so when there is consistent overlapping by a duo of attackers, as was witnessed on Thursday, when Antonio Candreva and Christian Maggio constantly caught the Spaniard unaware.
Luiz Felipe Scolari has been consistent with the selection of his starting eleven for Brazil. Despite many fans preference for Lucas Moura to start on the right, Scolari has stuck with left-footed forward Hulk. While Hulk has been anything but incredible, he provides a focal point for Brazil’s forward line, a facet of the game Scolari believes is crucial. However, against Alba, Scolari might just reap the rewards of playing Lucas, with his dribbling and pace especially in tandem with Alba’s Barcelona teammate Dani Alves who can help double up with his runs.
Exposing Brazil’s flanks
By the same token, even Brazil have weaknesses with their full-backs. Marcelo is considered a left-back only in name, as he spends more time in the attacking half of the field. Dani Alves is more diligent at the back than Marcelo, but can also be caught off-guard by through balls.
Against most teams, Alves and Marcelo’s contributions in supporting the attack play a crucial part in developing Brazil’s rhythm. However, against Spain, the Selecao will struggle to maintain control of the ball. With Andres Iniesta, David Silva, Xavi and the other midfielders constantly interchanging smartly, Alves and Marcelo could be dragged out of position quite regularly. If Vicente Del Bosque likes, he could even start with Navas and set up a direct confrontation against Marcelo.
Brazil’s height and directness
I believe Italy played really well and troubled Spain, mainly because like Spain, Italy treasured the ball, and their midfielders enjoy having possession of the ball. However, Brazil doesn’t have midfielders who necessarily like steady possession of the ball, notwithstanding Scolari springing a surprise and starting with Hernanes and Bernard.
It’s highly unlikely that Brazil are going to try something different in the final, so they have to stick to their attack strengths. Centre-backs David Luiz and Thiago Silva pose a threat from set-pieces, as does the unheralded Paulinho. Paulinho also can cause a threat with his box-to-box runs late into the penalty area. However, their biggest attacking threat comes from the directness of Neymar and Fred up front. As they are likely to deprived off the ball for long parts of the game, Brazil will certainly rely on Neymar’s undoubted skill and Fred’s quick decision making in front of goal.
Spain’s false nine
It was no surprise that Spain finally started to dominate Italy in extra time. Many have said this is due to the fact, that Italy tired. I believe a bigger reason was that Del Bosque removed Fernando Torres, and Spain restored to a false nine system that served them so well in winning Euro 2012.
It might seem harsh in the extreme to say that forwards with the records of Torres, Roberto Soldado and David Villa do not fit into Spain’s best eleven. The simply reality is that Lu Furia Roja, have perfected a system of harmony with their versatile midfielders. The excellence in ball control of Barcelona midfield trio of Sergi Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta is well known to all. If Cesc Fabregas is declared fit, he can easily slot in as the most advanced midfielder, with David Silva or Juan Mata supplying a nice left-footed angle, and either Navas or Pedro supporting from the right.
Del Bosque also has the option of playing the brilliant Javi Martinez alongside Busquets to ensure defensive solidity without compromising possession. Quite simply, six midfielders and a false nine is the way to go for Spain.
This is the last tournament left for Spain to complete their international trophy cabinet. Whereas for the longest time Spain would fail to show up when it really mattered. How the tables have turned. No team plays with better focus and concentration in the big games than Spain. No matter how tense the match situation, they don’t compromise on their principles, and in addition to their flair and precision, they possess immense mental strength and tenacity as witnessed by their penalty shootout win in the semi-final.
Brazil are a home team with pressures unlike any other host nation. It might sound like a cliché, but football is a religion in Brazil. For many in Brazil, it is their only source of happiness and pride. Despite the millions of inhabitants taking to the streets to protest against various social injustices in their country as well as the high cost of hosting the World Cup, none of the ire has been directed at the players representing the Selecao. The fans in stadiums have passionately backed their heroes, and more pertinently, the players themselves have declared their solidarity with the protesters.
Ultimately, this final could be decided by factors outside of football tactics. Will Spain’s focus and determination to complete their set of major trophies triumph over Brazil’s desire to bring happiness and pride to their people? We wait with bated breath for the answer on Sunday.