Tests begin now for Confederations Cup's expected semifinalists

The 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup group stage was a straightforward, upset-free procession, but the competition's final four will provide plenty of excitement and takeaways leading into World Cup 2018.
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The Confederations Cup is down to its final four, with Germany, Chile, Portugal and Mexico advancing the semifinals, as was widely expected.

The paths might not have been without hiccups (especially for Video Assistant Referees!), but a rather drab group stage in Russia's World Cup tune-up has given way to a pair of scintillating semifinals that will produce a final worth watching. 

As has been documented, winning the Confederations Cup hasn't exactly proven to be a good omen for the following World Cup, but that won't stop the four contenders from trying to complete their mission. 

Each of the four entered this competition with something to prove, and they'll be keen on seeing that out. For Germany, it was about seeing if its second tier was full of tournament-winning talent. For Portugal and Chile, it was about proving that its recent titles on the regional front aren't the ceiling. For Mexico, it was about proving it belongs in the conversation with the best teams in the world.

Glory, proving ground, experience: What Confederations Cup means for 8 contenders

With the group procession complete and the knockout stage set to begin, here's what we're left taking away from the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup: 

Three things we learned in the group stage

Germany's reinforcements are on the way

Jogi Low took an untested, experimental squad to Russia with the sole purpose of uncovering more first-choice options. Germany has seen the likes of Phillip Lahm, Miroslav Klose, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Per Mertesacker and Lukas Podolski move on from the international game, while Mario Gotze has endured uneven club play and health problems ever since his World Cup-winning goal in extra time vs. Argentina. That's more than 25% of the 2014 World Cup-winning squad, and while the international retirements were expected and are typically part of a national team's cycle–especially one that's just won the World Cup–it leaves gaps to fill.

As a result, Low is seeing who he can turn to in a tournament setting. Forwards Timo Werner and Lars Stindl look the part, while Joshua Kimmich is poised to take on a larger role. Emre Can and Leon Goretzka have shown they belong in Die Mannschaft's midfield. Bernd Leno hasn't exactly proven he's a top-tier international goalkeeper, and Marc-Andre ter Stegen can likely feel secure as the backup to Manuel Neuer.

Germany might not be the odds-on favorite in Russia next summer, but it'll have a squad–at least on paper–that is capable of repeating.

Timo Werner uses fan hatred in Germany as motivation at Confederations Cup

Russia may host, but it won't be a contender

World Cup hosts have traditionally fared well, with even the underdog hosts using the home advantage as a launchpad to reach the knockout stage. No host has won the competition since France in 1998, but home soil has typically been a fertile ground. That said, Russia has some gaps to close to ensure it doesn't bow out in the group stage.

Of course, all is at the mercy of the draw and Russia is seeded, as the tournament host. So falling into a "Group of Life" is always a possibility. But a group along the likes of the one Russia failed to get out of–Portugal, Mexico, New Zealand–isn't all that unassailable, and Russia might not get anything more advantageous come December's draw. On one hand, the Russians played hard in their three games and were dealing with some key injuries. On the other, they wound up capitulating against the two teams that were always going to be the most difficult to beat. Without ample improvement in a non-competitive setting between now and next summer, it's going to be a three-and-out for the 2018 World Cup host. 

VAR is a scrutinized work in progress

The Confederations Cup has been used as the most high-profile testing ground yet for full-on reliance on VAR, and it's been a mixed bag. Getting calls right is the ultimate goal, and while the disruption to the game might be upsetting some players, coaches, fans, pundits and your social media echo chamber, that's the future that's going to have to be accepted. The disruptions haven't been that bad, either ... except for the nonsense at the end of Mexico-New Zealand, which, in stoppage time, paused the game for four minutes for a referee to single out three players for yellow cards all while New Zealand was setting up for a potential game-tying free kick. Perhaps let's not entirely strip referees and their assistants of their duties? Working out the kinks is all part of the process, but you can be certain the scrutiny will grow exponentially should a World Cup match pivot on a controversial review.

Three things to watch in the semifinals

The Ronaldo trophy quest continues

It's been a trophy-laden year (and counting) for Cristiano Ronaldo: 2015-16 Champions League. Euro 2016. UEFA SuperCup. FIFA Club World Cup. La Liga. 2016-17 Champions League. 2015-16 UEFA's Best Player in Europe. 2016 Ballon d'Or. 2016 FIFA's The Best.

The only trophy of significance that Ronaldo has been eligible for and didn't win in that time was the Copa del Rey. So what do you get for the man obsessed with trophies? Another trophy, of course. A prolific run of titles such as this is unheard of and something all Cristiano lovers (and haters) will have their eye on before the competition ends and his headlines revert back to his sudden Real Madrid saga.

Ronaldo is also in the hunt for the Golden Boot, tied with Stindl and Werner atop the standings with a pair of group goals. 

Mexico on the knockout stage

This is the stage all El Tri fans have been pointing to since the competition began. Fail to get out of the group, and the (sometimes overly harsh) critics of Juan Carlos Osorio would have endless fodder to demand change despite a clear path to World Cup qualification. 

Mexico has had a dearth of success in knockout games outside of CONCACAF, and here it faces a chance to change the trend and get a taste of success that it can keep in the back of the mind and draw on for the future. Factor in that it's Germany (no matter if it's a glorified B team), and that's all the motivation Mexico should need to bring its best. Mexico has only beaten Germany once in 10 tries, in a minor 1985 competition, so a new frontier is beckoning.

Osorio is dealing with a number of injuries and a suspension to Andres Guardado, but this is a deep team, and as Osorio showed in the group stage, he has no problem looking all the way down his roster for contributors.  

Mexico advances to Confederations Cup semis, but adjustments remain for Osorio

Every possible final will be intriguing

Germany vs. Chile was arguably the game of the group stage, and a final rematch is Chile's ideal scenario. It showed what it can do against Mexico last summer. Now, with two continental trophies in hand, winning an international one against a European power would be as big of a statement of intent it can muster, especially after going through Ronaldo to get there. 

Mexico vs. Portugal would provide a rematch of the other contender for game of the tournament, after El Tri twice came back from a goal down and earned a draw on Hector Moreno's last-gasp header.

Germany vs. Portugal would pit two European giants against one another and give the Germans a crack at Ronaldo & Co.–a test they were denied after falling in the Euro 2016 semifinals to France.

Mexico vs. Chile is the granddaddy of them all, at least in this hemisphere. No matter how successful Mexico has been in the CONCACAF region, the 7-0 embarrassment and ouster at the hands of Chile at Copa America Centenario still stings. A repeat could do permanent psychological damage for Mexico, but redemption could set El Tri's demons free and set the foundation for a run that finally gets beyond the World Cup round of 16.

The Confederations Cup might not be everyone's favorite tournament, and its expiration date could be nearing as changes are made to the international game, but this edition's knockout stage will be the crown jewel of the "off summer" in the international calendar.