When the USA and Brazil met in the first round of the Confederations Cup June 15, much of the pregame publicity swirled about past history: a famous 1-0 American triumph at the 1998 Concacaf Gold Cup that marked the only U.S. success in 13 (now 14) meetings at the senior level.
With all that out of the way - Kasey Keller's saves, Preki's goal, the incredible drama, a delirious celebration at the final whistle, Romario's gracious postgame comments about Keller's performance - the focus is squarely on Sunday's final and what has changed since Brazil's win in the last meeting.
As it did against the USA, Brazil scored on a free kick Thursday to down host South Africa, 1-0, but unlike the U.S. game - when the free kick yielded a cross delivered by Maicon that Felipe Melo headed powerfully into the net from close range in the 7th minute - it didn't break through until late in the match. Substitute Dani Alves lined up on the left flank to curl a spectacular shot into the top corner to silence a rabid crowd buzzing at the prospect of an upset.
Brazil scored in the 90th minute with a penalty kick to subdue Egypt, 4-3, in its opening game, but seemingly got into stride by smacking the USA and Italy by identical 3-0 scores. Perhaps buoyed by the Americans' courageous defeat of Spain, and certainly driven on by its roaring fans and thousands of droning vuvuzelas, South Africa chased and tackled doggedly, and opened up Brazil's defense on several occasions.
South Africa blunted the attacking efforts of Maicon, a marauding force as well as goalscorer against the USA, after he got down the flank early in the match to hit a dangerous cross. Ramires, nearly unstoppable at times in the group phase, seemed to lose confidence after hitting a tepid shot from a good position and failing to do anything with a clever pass from Kaka. Its success in fending off Brazil's attacks encouraged South Africa to attack at pace and with numbers as the Americans had done against Spain.
Midway through the first half, and again in the second period, South Africa took the game to Brazil and exposed the same gaps and flaws as had the Egyptians. Steven Pienaar and his teammates, though, weren't as accurate on middle-distance shots as was Egypt, yet he and Tsepo Masilela threatened on the left flank. Masilela's dribble and cross that just failed to connect with Bernard Parker is something the Americans can emulate.
Brazil committed 14 fouls, several of them close enough to its own goal for set-play opportunities. Aaron Mokoena headed just over the bar on a free kick, and Masilela forced a good save by Julio Cesar when he went directly for goal.
After conceding two goals in the first 20 minutes and losing Sacha Kljestan to a red card in the 57th, the USA did manage to hit the crossbar twice - Conor Casey and Benny Feilhaber - late in the match.
In terms of fatigue, the roles are reversed. Spain had the extra day of rest for the semifinal and though it dictated tempo at certain intervals, the Americans refused to buckle under a fierce onslaught in the final minutes. The USA will have the extra rest day for the final, though replacing the suspended Michael Bradley in central midfield will probably require a shift in tactics and possibly formation as well, with a version of a 4-5-1 among the possibilities.
If he has confidence in the Jozy Altidore-Charlie Davies tandem up front, Coach Bob Bradley can slot Feilhaber at outside mid and move Donovan into middle with Clark, though Feilhaber is best suited to a central role. That could move Clint Dempsey to the left, which is where he often plays for Fulham. Feilhaber last started for the USA one and a half years ago against South Africa in Johannesburg, the site of Sunday's final, and hasn't played a full match since the 2007 Copa America.
Another option is to start Dempsey at forward rather than midfield, but he's been effective coming from wide positions if more consistently dangerous up top. Even if the players ostensibly start out in a 4-5-1, in their best games there's been a lot of interchanging and interplay among the attackers, which if repeated will test Brazil and perhaps add to this unforgettable competition a second historic victory.