[CONFEDERATIONS CUP] Of all the soccer packed into this summer -- World Cup qualifiers, the U-20 World Cup, the Gold Cup -- the Confederations Cup promises to be the biggest gathering of top talent. Besides being a dress rehearsal for Brazil to demonstrate it's on track to successfully host the 2014 World Cup, the eight-nation tournament that kicks off Saturday features the top teams of their region. Looking beyond the usual suspects, here are five stars capable of being difference-makers during their teams' quest to be champions at the new Maracana Stadium.
Shinji Kagawa (midfielder) Japan
Japan enters the 2013 Confederations Cup with the unique distinction of being the first team, other than the host country, to have qualified for the 2014 World Cup. Although drawn into the difficult Group A with Brazil, Italy and Mexico, Japan brings an experienced squad that has proved in Asian qualifying it can score goals in bunches. Look for Manchester United’s 24-year-old midfielder Shinji Kagawa to spark Japan’s dynamic attack, which certainly has the potential to carry it into the semifinals.
Kagawa joins the Samurai Blue following his first English Premier League season, in which he notched six goals in 20 league appearances for the Red Devils. What makes Kagawa’s offensive output in his debut season all the more impressive is that Alex Ferguson asked Kagawa to play on the left wing of United’s attack, rather than in Kagawa’s natural central position.
Ferguson’s use of Kagawa recently drew criticism from Kagawa’s former coach, Borussia Dortmund’s Jurgen Klopp, who believes that United is wasting Kagawa’s talent by moving him from the playmaking role he thrived in at Dortmund in 2010-2012. Kagawa will likely get the chance to play his natural position for Japan, and an impressive showing may convince new United manager David Moyes to deploy Kagawa centrally as the Red Devils seek to defend their EPL title.
Stephan El Shaaraway (forward) Italy
Italy enters the Confederations Cup with its attacking corps in a bit of disarray. Absent from Cesare Prandelli’s squad are veteran strikers Antonio Cassano and Antonio di Natale who helped bolster the Azzurri’s attack during their march to the finals at Euro 2012. Additionally, Prandelli dismissed Pablo Osvaldo from the squad after the Roma striker criticized his club coach Aurelio Andreazzoli over Twitter following Roma’s loss to archrival Lazio in the finals of the Coppa Italia in late-May. But with these notable absences comes an opportunity for 20 year-old AC Milan forward Stephan El Shaaraway to burst onto the international scene.
Nicknamed “The Little Pharaoh” by fans for his Egyptian heritage, El Shaaraway enjoyed a breakout season at the San Siro where his 16 goals propelled a Milan side that underperformed most of the season into a Champions League spot. El Shaaraway brings pace and creativity into the Italian attack, as well as positional versatility. Depending on what formation Prandelli elects to play, El Shaaraway can line up on the wing, or as a striker playing alongside club teammate Mario Balotelli. With Balotelli’s inconsistent play, and even more unpredictable temper, Italy will hope that El Shaaraway brings the electrifying form to Brazil that has Manchester City closely monitoring the young Italian’s progress.
Fred (forward) Brazil
With the likes of Neymar, Oscar and Hulk leading the way, Brazil boasts plenty of firepower to defend their Confederations Cup crown on their home turf. However, in Brazil’s most recent friendlies, a relatively unfamiliar name has found its way onto the score sheet. Against England on June 2 and against France on June 9, Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari has called on 29-year-old forward Fred to play as a target striker in front of Neymar and Co., in the midfield, and he delivered in both games with the opening goal against England and assisting on Oscar’s winner against France.
After three full seasons in France with Lyon where he won three Ligue 1 titles, Fred returned to Brazil in 2009 to play for Fluminense. Since Fred’s arrival, Fluminense has won the Brazilian Série A twice. Fred has been in prolific form the last two seasons for Fluminense with a combined 42 goals in 53 league appearances. With Neymar and the Seleção’s other stars attracting most of the attention from opposing defenses, look for Fred to exploit the space given to him and tally a few goals on Brazil’s quest to repeat as champions.
Pedro (forward) Spain
Spain is very much in the midst a golden age for developing midfielders. With Barcelona’s Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and Cesc Fabregas, as well as Arsenal’s Santi Cazorla all at his disposal, Vicente del Bosque seemingly can’t go wrong with whom he selects to patrol the center of the field for La Roja. But just weeks before the Confederations Cup, del Bosque was robbed of one of his midfield stalwarts when an ankle injury ruled out Xabi Alonso.
At Euro 2012 del Bosque preferred to use Andres Iniesta as a winger in his 4-3-3 formation, but if recent friendlies against Haiti and Ireland are any indication, Iniesta will get to play his natural position of center mid at the Confederations Cup, leaving an open position on the wing. Barcelona’s pacey winger Pedro seems set to arrive in Brazil as del Bosque’s top choice to lead the right side of Spain’s attack.
Although admitting that he did not play as many minutes for Barcelona this past season as he had hoped, Pedro still managed to score seven goals in La Liga. Perhaps Pedro’s most important goal this season came in a World Cup qualifying match against France in March, where he tallied the winner that cemented Spain atop of their qualifying group. The pressure will be on for Pedro to deliver in Brazil because if he encounters a poor run of form, del Bosque certainly has options like Juan Mata and Jesus Navas.
Pablo Barrera (midfielder) Mexico
Despite the successes of their youth teams over the past year, Mexico’s national team travels to Brazil coming off a string of largely unimpressive performances in friendlies and World Cup qualifiers. Despite having the talented Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, Giovani dos Santos, and Andres Guardado leading the attack, El Tri’s offense has suffered from stagnation and a lack of creativity.
Particular blame has been placed on the right side of the midfield, which is currently manned by 25-year-old midfielder Pablo Barrera. Barrera should be familiar to American fans, as his brace in the finals of the 2011 Gold Cup led the way for a 4-2 victory for Mexico over the United States. After a failed two-season spell in Europe, Barrera returned to Mexico in May of 2012 to play for Cruz Azul.
Barrera can show confidence and flair on the ball, and has the motor to work hard in the attack and on defense, making him a favorite of coach Jose Manuel de la Torre. But if Barrera does not start to connect better with his fellow attackers, de la Torre may be forced to call upon young gun Javier Aquino, who played a key role on Mexico’s gold medal run at last summer’s Olympics.
Look for Barrera to arrive in Brazil with something to prove to his teammates, coaches, and fans, and he may just provide the spark El Tri needs to jumpstart their attack.