Brazil can (and will) challenge for World Cup 2014
Going into this tournament, the biggest question was whether the new generation of Brazilians could play with the established European powers. After five wins in five matches, complete with victories against Italy and Spain, that question appears to have been answered with a resounding yes. That is not to say that Brazil are now the definitive favorites to win in 2014, but by winning the Confeds – and in the manner they did – they certainly showcased their capabilities. Brazil have seemingly found the first time in a long time, the proper mixture of attack and defense, with capable leaders on each area of the pitch: Julio Cesar again showed he is the obvious #1 in goal; captain Thiago Silva only further cemented his role as one of the very best centre-backs in football; Paulinho (who in fairness has already been starring in Brazil for Corinthians) established himself on the global level, earning a highly anticipated move to Tottenham; and of course, the front line is led by Neymar, who having scored four goals in five matches while also providing the assist of tournament in their match against Mexico, surely silenced his European critics. On the pitch at least, it is again a good time for Brazilian football.
The rest of the world is catching up to Spain
To say that Spain’s reign at the top of the footballing world is over is far too harsh, but after failing to score in two consecutive matches and looking entirely outmatched against Brazil, it is fair to say that the Spanish are no longer as far in front of everyone as once they were. The recipe for beating this Spanish side looks all too familiar to that which is required against Barcelona: high pressing, physicality that pushes the limits of legality, and clinical finishing. And while some sides can apply the first two (see Nigeria in their group match against Spain), without the clinical finishing, the high pressing and physical play is meaningless. Yet, if this is the blueprint, Spanish fans could be forgiven for thinking the outcome of each match hinges on the leniency of the referee. Indeed, Dutch referee Bjorn Kuipers was perhaps too lenient in the opening minutes and throughout, with precedent being set when he chose not to book Oscar after three early fouls. More than this, the Spanish must be wondering when Vicente del Bosque embraces change. Knowing how much of Brazil’s attack lies in their marauding fullbacks, surely del Bosque would have been rewarded for starting the pacy and direct winger, Jesus Navas, who could have perhaps pegged Marcelo back. And perhaps even more importantly, del Bosque could have chosen to counter Brazil’s physical midfield with his own physical midfielder, Javi Martinez (who himself played so large a part in Bayern Munich’s 7-0 destruction of Barca back in April). Perhaps it is little more than hindsight thinking, but it is hard to see the same scoreline had del Bosque opted to play Iniesta on the left wing (where Mata was entirely ineffective), joining Martinez and Busquets in the middle of the pitch.
Prandelli’s Italy can win in 2014
With a wide range of tactical flexibility (and a manager who is unafraid to embrace change – even in the middle of a tournament), this new Italian team is dangerous, creative and fun. Come World Cup 2014, the front line of Mario Balotelli and Stephan El Shaarawy will be one year older (read: more mature) and the midfield and defense will remain largely unchanged, while Pirlo and Buffon will likely be playing in their final international tournaments. The defensive struggles they seemed to have in the group stages (yielding three goals to both Brazil and Japan) were promptly dealt with against Spain, and can perhaps be written down to little more than a Confeds adventure scheme. Shifting to a 3-4-2-1 against Spain, Prandelli showed Italy’s tactical advantage: they can easily shift between shapes and intent, further evidenced by De Rossi’s move to the back three at halftime against Spain. In a tournament setting, this capability could prove vital as they can effortlessly change on a whim, dependent on opponent.
The hipster dark horses have a ways to go
As Belgium has become everyone’s favorite dark horse, Japan (with a new generation of talented and technical players) and Mexico (fresh off their tournament winning defeat of Brazil to clinch Olympic Gold) had become the more hipster choices, the non-mainstream picks to advance deep into World Cup 2014. Yet after collecting only three combined points – and those coming in a match between themselves – it’s quite evident that Japan and Mexico have a ways to go. In Mexico’s case, it has been coming. After a horrid start to their World Cup qualifying campaign, the whispers of discontent have been heard, with some even speculating that coach “Chepo” de la Torre could be sacked. That has not happened, but neither did the Confeds Cup help the team get back on track. Dismal performances against Italy and Brazil did more to further deplete confidence than the win against Japan did to boost it. And as for Japan, their technical ability in the middle of the park is extraordinary, as Shinji Kagawa, Keisuke Honda and Yasuhito Endo provide creativity and consistency. But it is the other areas, particularly the defense and striker, that the Japanese are devoid of the necessary skill to achieve prolonged success in the World Cup. As long as their defense and goalkeeping continue to look shaky, the Japanese hope of a long Cup run remains little more than an improbable pipe dream.