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Spain sets up dream final with Brazil
BELO HORIZONTE, BRAZIL
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Spain set up a dream Confederations Cup final with hosts Brazil as they ousted Italy on penalty kicks tonight in Fortaleza after a 0-0 draw. Jesus Navas scored the decisive spot kick in sudden death after Leonardo Bonucci sent his attempt over the bar and into the stands.
It was a breathless end to a game that showed little difference between two of Europe’s greatest teams. Combined, the sides converted twelve straight penalties until Bonucci’s mistake, providing a tense finish to a game played in stifling conditions at the Estadio Castelao. After a stunning first half of action, the teams faded in the 90ºF heat, before a helter-skelter extra time period set up Navas’ sudden-death winner.
But ugly scenes outside the stadium marred this match. A bus carrying fans was attacked today en route to the Castelao, and seven people were reported injured after police and army forces used tear gas and rubber bullets against a crowd. 87 arrests were reported.
Protests continue to roil the nation, and questions must be asked as to whether or not Brazil can guarantee the security of visitors to next year’s World Cup. Eighteen other cities also saw demonstrations tonight, and the center of Rio was shut down by a march that many observers fear is just a preview of what awaits Sunday’s final. Organizers have promised a major demonstration outside the Maracana, and several trade unions are also planning strikes.
This will make for as tense a final this weekend as the shootout was tonight, and it is anyone’s guess what will happen.
Using wing-backs to press Spain in midfield and up top, Italy terrorized Iker Casillas for much of the early going. Emanuele Giaccherini and Maggio routinely found space wide to cross in, and had Giaccherini’s shot in extra time not hit the post, it might well be Italy in Rio instead. But Italy proved profligate: De Rossi and Maggio were both gifted free headers, and neither man was able to put them on target. When Maggio finally stung Casillas’ palms – off service from Giaccherini – it looked as though it might be one of those nights for the azzurri.
As the game wore on, and Spain were able to shake off the midfield pressure, Fernando Torres and Xavi were finally able to start influencing matters. Torres would have one of the best chances when he rounded Andrea Barzagli, but his attempt could only skate across Buffon’s frame. He would combine with sub Jesus Navas to set up Gerard Pique twice, and his runs late in the game drove Spain forward.
Both teams looked spent after the hour mark. Cramps hit. Players started to walk. And you suspected that had ref Howard Webb allowed it, the sides would have taken kicks right then at the final whistle.
Spain would own extra time, with Pique and Jordi Alba both coming close until Xavi nearly won it. Buffon has been widely, and rightly, criticized for his performances this Cup. He had looked tender and uncertain, and some asked if he was entering the twilight of his tenure with the national team. Tonight, he answered his doubters with a match-saving stop, pushing a late Xavi drive onto the bar, and then somehow throwing Juan Mata off on the rebound. It was last-gasp, but it was enough.
The shootout showed just how professional, and how dangerous, these teams are. One after another, the takers walked up to the spot, and slammed the ball into the net. Casillas and Buffon never came close to the ball, and it wasn’t until Bonucci’s unfortunate miss that the deadlock would be broken. It was fair enough: Italy possibly shaded Spain on the day, but the greatest teams usually find ways to win these games.
The result now gives the South American teams a massive advantage. Spain will come into Rio off a grueling match and on a day’s less rest. Italy, in the same boat, will now play Uruguay in the unloved third-place match in Salvador Sunday.
This is good news for the hosts – but perhaps bodes well for Spain. If they win in Rio, against the backdrop of all that is taking place here, there will be few who will deny that they are the world’s best.
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