Confederations Cup has shown that Brazil, Spain need to improve
The Confederations Cup is intended as a dry run for the World Cup host, to road test the stadiums, the infrastructure and the internal organization with an eight-team tournament a year before the 32-team main event. But it also serves as a trial for the teams involved, placing their squads under the stress of tournament conditions in a way the usual qualifying series cannot. It would be no great surprise if Sunday's final, between Brazil and Spain, turns out to be a dress rehearsal for next year's final -- even if both sides have shown significant flaws.
In the former regard, given the protests and the occasionally brutal police response to them, Brazil has revealed an unexpected threat to security. We've been accustomed to the risk of hooliganism and terrorism at major sporting events and in South Africa there was much pre-tournament panic about crime (although it seemed very few actual instances in reality). Now public protest (and the reaction of the authorities) has been added to the list of challenges; something it seems a little baffling hasn't happened sooner.
After all, it's hardly surprising that there should be severe misgivings about huge amounts of public money being spent on hosting a tournament that will bring a profit for FIFA, a few construction firms and virtually nobody else, particularly when economic conditions are tough. Equally, if you want to make a protest against the government, when better to do it than when the eyes of the world are turned to your country anyway? Not only does it guarantee publicity, it may also limit the response of authorities concerned about their global image.
On the pitch, there were positives for Uruguay, which after two years of slump, at last looked lively again, and Italy, which attacked with vim and sorted out its defense in time for the semifinal despite the iffy form of its goalkeeper, Gianluigi Buffon. For Japan, Mexico and Nigeria, the message was more mixed. Not for the first time, Japan flattered to deceive, its play neat and technical but yielding three defeats. Nigeria, similarly, looked good in patches, and with better finishing might have troubled Spain, but ended up with only a win against Tahiti having lost its way in the second half against Uruguay when it had dominated the opening period. Mexico's experience was rather more positive -- disappointing against Italy, it survived an early storm to hold Brazil for long periods and then beat Japan comfortably for just its second win in 13 games -- but it was still far from convincing.
Neither finalist has been entirely impressive, either. At the World Cup and Euro 2012, there was much chatter about Spain being "boring," about the "control" on which Vicente Del Bosque insists yielding only a string of 1-0 wins against teams sitting deep and hoping to frustrate it. On the evidence of this tournament, it's safe to assume more teams will try to get at Spain next summer. After a time, the best teams give off such an aura of success that they win games almost before kickoff, intimidating with reputation alone: Spain has had a long spell in which it hasn't needed to defend because opponents were so scared of attacking it. Although neither scored, Nigeria and Italy demonstrated that Spain is vulnerable -- just as Barcelona and Real Madrid proved to be in the Champions League last season when at last they faced sides prepared to take them on. It may be that if Xabi Alonso returns to the midfield, a measure of solidity will be restored, but the doubt is there.
Brazil, it's certain, will attack Spain. After all the experimenting, Luiz Felipe Scolari seems to have settled on a side, which at least gives his players the chance to find an internal cohesion, something that is all the more difficult given the lack of qualifying fixtures for Brazil. Somehow it has conceded just once in four games but there are clear defensive deficiencies behind the fullbacks. The holders Paulinho and Luiz Gustavo have been getting better at providing cover for attacking fullbacks Dani Alves and Marcelo, but Sunday will be a real test as they have also to cope with Andres Iniesta and Xavi breaking from midfield.
In fact, this is a major test for Brazil as a whole. So long as it dominates possession, it can just about get away with Neymar and Hulk sauntering around on the flanks doing little in the way of defensive work, but even though Italy managed it against Spain in spells, the probability is that for long periods Brazil will not have the ball. Hulk, in particular, will have to keep a close eye on the forward surges of Jordi Alba, while it's easy to imagine Pedro and David Silva (and perhaps even more so the rapid Jesus Navas if he comes off the bench) exploiting the space left by Marcelo and Dani Alves as they push forwards.
Spain has the disadvantage of having played extra time in the heat and humidity of Fortaleza a day after Brazil played its semifinal in the relative cool of Belo Horizonte, but then it effectively had a day off earlier in the tournament with the 10-0 stroll against Tahiti. This is the last remaining international tournament this Spain hasn't won but while Del Bosque would certainly love to complete the set, it is just as important for his side to rediscover the ability to control games that won it the World Cup and the Euros.