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Brazil set to clash with Spain in final
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL
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But there is one thing that threatens to spoil what might be a triumphant day for Brazil. A massive protest march is planned in Rio on the day of the game, with organizers predicting 100,000 fans may march on the Maracana.
The protestors have focused on the soccer games because of the vast amounts of money spent on new stadiums for this tournament and the upcoming World Cup. Clashes between police and protesters have occurred daily during this tournament, and frequently have turned violent. At the semifinal in Belo Horizonte, one protestor died as tear gas and rubber bullets were lobbed outside the Mineirao in a scene that was more war zone than soccer match.
On the field, both teams emphasize possession and attacking flair. Both teams can score at will. And both sides have shown weaknesses in what has turned out to be an unexpectedly positive and grueling tournament. And whoever wins Sunday can surely lay claim to being the favorites in next year’s World Cup finals.
Brazil enter with two big advantages: they are the hosts, and this game will take place at the iconic and cavernous Maracana, one of the true cathedrals of the sport. The stadium holds nearly 80,000 people, and has played host to some of the greatest games in Brazilian soccer history, including their infamous loss in 1950 to Uruguay in the World Cup finals.
Brazil also gained an extra day of rest, which will be magnified by the fact that Spain were forced to go into extra time and penalties against Italy on Thursday in sweltering conditions in Fortaleza. How the Spaniards recover from that ordeal is a major subplot to this game.
Spain were given all they could handle on Thursday in a rematch of last year’s European Championship finals, and Brazil will surely have studied how Cesare Prandelli deployed wingbacks to disrupt Spain’s pass-first midfield. Christian Maggio and Emanuele Giaccherini were played out of position to give width on the attack and harry Xavi and Andres Iniesta on defense. For large stretches of the match, the tactic worked, and had Maggio or Giaccherini been able to convert their chances, it would be the Italians taking the stage this Sunday in Spain’s stead.
But Spain, like many great teams, doggedly found a way to win. Fernando Torres could not get on the board but he remained a threat up top, testing Gigi Buffon with Spain’s best chance of the first half, and feeding the electric sub Jesus Navas to keep Italy at bay as time wore on. In the shootout, Spain was perfect, pouncing when Italy’s Leonardo Bonucci made a fatal mistake from the spot.
Vicente Del Bosque has a few questions to answer: David Silva and Pedro have been wildly disappointing in this tournament when under pressure, and the arguments for Juan Mata and Roberto Soldado to start are growing. Cesc Fabregas is the forgotten man of this Cup, and is likely to spend another afternoon rooted to the bench. And then there’s Torres, who has had an outstanding tournament, albeit with an inflated goal haul thanks to a match against Tahiti. He has looked far more dangerous, but after running for 90+ minutes against Italy, how much he still has left in the tank is an open question.
Brazil earned their berth with a late win over Uruguay that was both lucky and deserved on the run of play. Deserved, because when Uruguay had the chance to change the game, Julio Cesar made the play of the game, a key penalty kick save on Diego Forlan in the 14th minute. But lucky, too, because Brazil looked lethargic for long stretches, and Paulinho’s late winner – a textbook header off a corner from Neymar – broke what had been a tense and unsatisfying afternoon at the Mineirao.
Neymar is Brazil’s hero this tournament, scoring three superb goals and having a hand in many others. Neymar had been widely questioned here before this tournament began, with critics pointing to his youth and what seemed to be an inflated reputation. The new Barcelona man has answered them all, and if he shines on Sunday, Brazil will have even more of an advantage.
Brazil have not looked like a complete team in this Cup. They still have not figured out who the best strike partner for Neymar is -- Hulk has been a disappointment and Fred doesn’t seem to have all the tools – and the defense remains capable of astonishing lapses. Even Thiago Silva, the most solid member of this team’s back line was struck by the yips when he coughed the ball up to Edinson Cavani, proving a moment of low comedy, and a goal to their South American rivals.
But Brazil still has a lot of class. David Luiz, despite a tendency towards over-exuberance, remains one of the most vital cogs in the side, a water-carrying defensive back who is able to spark the attack. Oscar, despite a poor showing in the semifinals, has been dazzling at times as the fulcrum behind the line of forwards. And both Luiz Gustavo and Paulinho have shown they can get the dirty work done in midfield. Neither man has been flashy, both have been very reliable.
Conditions are expected to be a factor: Rio is expecting temperatures in the mid-80s on game day with stifling humidity. Both teams will have their full squads available, and both teams are likely to field what is fundamentally a 4-3-3 formation.
Give the edge to the hosts on the field. Off the field, expect the protests to continue – that story has a long way to run.
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