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Rivals face off in Confed Cup semis
BELO HORIZONTE, BRAZIL
The Confederations Cup semifinals kick off here Wednesday night with the first of an unusual back-to-back set of grudge matches. Brazil take on old rivals Uruguay (live, Wednesday 2 p.m. ET) here at the Mineiro while, Fortaleza will be treated to a rematch of the 2012 European Championships as Spain meet Italy (live, Thursday, 2 p.m. ET) .
If the games go to script, we could see a dream match-up in Rio in under a week’s time: Spain versus Brazil, a match that would arguably be a preview of next year’s World Cup final.
We start Wednesday with a South American grudge match with deep roots. Uruguay famously beat Brazil in Rio in the 1950 World Cup finals, a slight that is still fresh in the memory of fans here. That game is referred to as the “Maracanzo” or, the “Maracana blow,” and if you think 60-plus years has soothed the hurt, think again. Every time Uruguay has touched the ball in this tournament, they have been whistled at by the home crowd. There is little love here between the two sets of fans.
Uruguay rested a large group of their players for their 8-0 walk over Tahiti to get here, and they will have all but one player available to them on Wednesday, the suspended Andres Scotti. From there, the choices get a little more complex.
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Against Spain, Oscar Tabarez deployed a standard 4-4-2 with Diego Forlan left on the bench, and using Walter Gargano and Diego Perez down the gut to disrupt the Spanish passing game. (It didn’t work: Spain cut Uruguay to ribbons and Tabarez was forced to abandon his plan at the hour mark, yanking both Gargano and Perez and tossing Diego Forlan on in the hopes of spurring Luis Suarez.) Against Nigeria and Tahiti, Uruguay played with their preferred 3-4-3, and it worked a charm. In games that matter, Forlan lines up Suarez and Edinson Cavani, and the old man still has it. He was the hero against Nigeria, scoring one and setting up the other, and it is hard to see how he is left out of this critical match. One hitch: Cavani has been awful. Will Abel Hernandez, who scored four against the hapless islanders, get the nod?
Brazil, of course, is not Nigeria. For one thing, they can take their chances: Neymar is having a blinder of a tournament, scoring three brilliant goals; Oscar is proving to be a real handful for the opposition as well. But Brazil have been very logey: against Japan, they won with ease without dazzling; against Mexico they looked as if they would rather be anywhere else. Brazil’s strength is in their counter-punch, which the used to great effect in their 4-2 win over Italy. Twice, Fred was sprung, twice Fred scored. Expect them to line up in a 4-3-3 with Paulinho and Luiz Gustavo asked to carry the water. One man who has not impressed so far is Hulk: don’t be shocked if Jo gets a run-out considering he has taken his chances late.
Overshadowing this match – as has been the case all Cup long – is the chance of violent protests. Belo Horizonte has been particularly hard hit, and police have set up a mile-long “santitary zone” around the Mineirao. Security alerts have always been issued, and trouble is expected pre- and post-game.
Thursday, Spain will try to repeat last year’s knockout of Italy, this time at the Casetlao. In Kiev, Spain drubbed a brave Italy team lead by Andrea Pirlo 4-0. This year, Pirlo is back -- and Italy remain heavy underdogs. In a critical blow to Italy’s hopes, they must face the Spanish without Mario Balotelli, who is out of the remainder of the tournament with a thigh injury. His removal might mean more playing time for Stephan El Shaaraway, who has been seen only sparingly so far.
Brazilian ace Neymar has received the highest individual marks during the Confederations Cup (Source:WhoScored.com).
Italy has been playing a 4-3-2-1 in the games that matter, but with Balotelli gone, they may shift to the 4-2-3-1 they used in their final, and meaningless, game against the hosts. Alessandro Diamanti – who only showed flashes against Brazil – might get a run out; Pirlo is said to have recovered from the injury that kept him out against Brazil and will lead the line. One man to keep an eye on is Gigi Buffon: he has not looked sharp in the nets all tournament long. Cesare Prandelli may have to make a tough call on him ahead of next year’s World Cup.
Spain, on the other hand, have been devastating, and so far, devoid of any discernable weakness. No matter who they have fielded, and what formation Vincent del Bosque has deployed, Spain have run over every single team they have faced.
Iker Casillas is likely to return (del Bosque has given each of his keepers a game so far) but after that, go figure. The only thing you can be certain of is that Spain’s depth is so great that no matter whether it is Roberto Soldado or Fernando Torres up top, they are going to score goals, and the best you can do is limit the damage.
Torres is two goals away from breaking the record for most goals by a player in this tournament, and he looks like getting them. He racked up four against Tahiti and then sealed the game against Nigeria with a stunning, crashing header that may signal he is back to his old potency.
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