What: FIFA Confederations Cup – Group A
Who: Italy vs Brazil
When: Saturday 22nd June, 2013, at 20:00 UK Time
Where: Arena Fonte Nova, Salvador, Brazil
Keeping The Show On The Road
Like a few creaking Terminators, Italy are back and this time they mean it. Consider that within their last starting eleven in this tournament, only two players were below the age of 25, and it is easy to wonder how the rest of the world has not sorted out a plan for them yet. However, much like an ageing Arnold Schwarzenegger balances the delicate art of US politics with the not-so-delicate matter of saving the future (or is it the past?), and emerges the hero, Italy have used their experience to good effect at the Confederations Cup.
Perhaps "stamped" is too strong a word to use for their authority, but two wins out of two is by no means an easy feat when tackling the likes of Mexico and Japan. Even more so when their 2-1 win over Mexico saw the late Mario Balotelli show – complete with shirt removal and a yellow card – while the 4-3 victory over Japan would have set even the most confident of punters' hearts racing. Indeed, going 2-0 down inside 33 minutes may have put extremely cold water on what had been a celebration for Andrea Pirlo in their tournament opener against Mexico. But once again the experience shone as 29-year-old Daniele De Rossi sparked the comeback with Balotelli providing their first lead of the match on 52 minutes and Sebastian Giovinco, 26, completing the turnaround.
It means Italy's qualification for the semi-finals is complete, but how much more tension the Azzurri can withstand before they crack is one for time to tell; especially when the small matter of avoiding Spain is the biggest prize on stake in Salvador. Pirlo, in addition, is injured and De Rossi is suspended thanks to his yellow cards from both previous games. Is it time for the young generation to take full control and for Balotelli to produce early on? It would certainly give the older hearts an easier ride through the barrage that is expected to flow from Brazil. There can perhaps be a more fitting occasion for Italy as a whole to clinch their first win over Brazil in 30 years, but for Pirlo, at least, that occasion is now.
Playing Against Protest Backdrop
Barcelona may have already set a target for how many Neymar shirts they can sell for the next five years of his contract. The star has come of age in one of the biggest stages of his career so far – and in some style: A cracking volley against Japan to kick-off the tournament and another to help Brazil cruise yet again. Necklaces with "Neymar" emblazoned on them are just part of the rock-star following he has garnered. If there were still hearts left to be won, then his comments on the socio-political unrest currently ravaging Brazil's major cities must surely have convinced those of lesser faith.
If Brazil have been criticised too often in recent times for just being a collection of individuals and not a team, then any lower-ranked nation would be ready to grab that tag with aplomb, especially if the 21-year-old is anywhere near it.
The question remains if Luiz Felipe Scolari will wrap Neymar in cotton wool for the next game, given a slight thigh injury he picked up against Mexico, or risk him in order to top the group. However, when considering Brazil's entire team, then perhaps the loss of Neymar for essentially a bragging-rights fixture will not do much harm. Paulinho and Oscar have marshalled the midfield adequately, with Thiago and David Luiz the rock on which their defence hinges.
Rocks can't bleed, but they can certainly crack. However, Luiz didn't need his full nasal capabilities to sniff out an attack, as the Chelsea man carried on against Mexico despite breaking his nose.
Hulk has struggled to give a full account of his skills, but Scolari should retain faith in the 26-year-old, used primarily on the wings, and overall, Brazil will have the edge as the final round sees the best clash of the group. Whether this encounter will see Brazil lose their 50-year record of being unbeaten in competitive games on home soil, is down to whether this group of individuals can sum up what a country reeling from the weight of protests is truly capable of.
Haiti 2-2 Italy (12/06; Friendly)
Mexico 1-2 Italy (16/06; Confederations Cup)
Italy 4-3 Japan (19/06; Confederations Cup)
Brazil 3-0 France (09/06; Friendly)
Brazil 3-0 Japan (15/06; Confederations Cup)
Brazil 2-0 Mexico (19/06; Confederations Cup)
Players to watch
Italy – Mario Balotelli: The normally mercurial striker has kept Italy's hopes well alive with two goals in two games, but is in danger of missing out further down the tournament if he gets a booking. Coach Cesare Prandelli will have a huge gamble in choosing between the top-spot cause or risking him and potentially losing him. More than Balotelli, it will be the AC Milan forward's hot head to watch out for.
Brazil – Hulk: With all the attention now firmly fixed on Neymar, there can be no better chance for Hulk to break free of the barriers he has faced so far. Substituted in both previous games, his efforts on the wing will be closely monitored by the coaching staff, as Brazil head into the business end of the tournament.
With semi-final berths sealed, both sides will be focused on avoiding Spain going forward. Changes will be expected, especially with Pirlo struggling and De Rossi unavailable for Italy.
Italy will be without Stephan El Shaarawy, placing extra emphasis on Balotelli, while Brazil have the depth to make up for a potential Neymar-sized void, and should retain their usual flair for attack.
It is hard to see past Italy conceding a goal, but the Azzurri should have the firepower to score one themselves. There may be a few goals overall, with Brazil making the most of their attacking prowess to gain a 3-1 win.
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