Battle of the Giants: Charged-up Brazil faces smooth Spain after scrappy semifinals

By Paul Gardner

There's not much point in trying to make out that the Confederations Cup semifinals gave us sublime soccer. Both games were rather ragged affairs. The problem in the Brazil-Uruguay semi was the endless series of mistakes, by both teams -- mistakes that usually led to the ball being lost, which in turn led to scrappy attempts -- fouling and borderline fouling -- to get it back.

Brazil deserved its win, if only because it did at least try to make full use of its resources by attempting to play an attacking game. That is the essence of Brazilian soccer: simply, to score more goals than he opponents.

It’s a wonderful philosophy, but it’s come off the rails lately because Brazil is finding it hard to score. It had all sorts of problems against Uruguay, problems that were greatly enlarged by Uruguay’s decision to play a heavily defensive game. Of course, when you do that, you know from the start that you’ve greatly reduced your own chances of scoring, so you’re hoping for a break, just one will do it, that will more or less present you with a goal.

Uruguay got their break 13 minutes into the game. A clash of bulky defenders -- David Luiz pulled down Diego Lugano on a corner kick, and referee Enrique Osses of Chile shocked everyone by doing what refs so rarely do -- he called the foul and awarded the penalty kick.

Up stepped Dead Eye Diego Forlan, to deliver a pretty good kick -- only to see keeper Julio Cesar make a wonderful (and legal) save. Bad news for Uruguay -- you can’t afford to waste those gifts. They did actually get one more gift -- chaotic Brazilian defending in the penalty area resulted in the ball, far from being cleared, ending up in front of Edinson Cavani, who merrily slammed it into the net.

Which tied things at 1-1, Brazil having taken the lead after some neat skill from Neymar had presented Fred with a half-chance, which he then miskicked into a goal.

But ... Uruguay. A team containing no fewer than three of the world’s top goalscorers - Forlan, Cavani and Luis Suarez, yet it persisted with its crabby defensive play, play that denied all three forwards any real chance to use their skills.

Yet, here we had the TV commentators, marveling that Uruguay had a “game plan,” and it was working, shutting down Brazil, see how successful it was as the first half approached its ending with the score at 0-0 ... whoops, that was when Fred got his goal, and suddenly this game plan didn’t look so brilliant.

Anyway, what game plan? Playing Scrooge-soccer from a bunker of nine defenders, with the accompanying chorus of tactical fouls (Uruguay fouled 24 times to Brazil’s 14) ... that’s a game plan? It looked much more like what it was -- the barren tactics of a scared coach who didn’t consider his team good enough to take on Brazil by playing real soccer. The sort of soccer, incidentally, that Uruguay had played so excitingly three years ago in South Africa.

Uruguay got what it deserved, beaten by Paulinho’s late headed goal. We were then invited by the TV guy to “feel sorry for Uruguay, they’ve worked hard ...” Not me. I’m looking at those three fine strikers, wasted, that stat of just three shots on goal, those 24 fouls and I can feel only relief that it’s Brazil we shall see again, in the final.

But what sort of Brazil is this? Anything but irresistible, I’d say. Defensively, Brazil looks very shaky indeed, downright chaotic at times. While attacking fullbacks have been a Brazilian trademark for as long as I can remember, they’re surely not supposed to constitute the main force of the attack. Yet here we have Marcelo and Dani Alves more involved than Fred, more than Neymar. That doesn’t seem right. A prolific goalscorer is lacking, too, as is a traditional No. 10 as the focus of the team’s wiles and artistry.

Maybe that’s a role for Neymar, but not yet. Nor does Oscar seem ready for it. So it goes begging, and Brazil is the poorer for its absence.

Uruguay’s negative play, designed to negate and frustrate Brazil, came up short. But in the other semi, we had the Italians frustrating Spain. But this was different. With the Italians, this is not a tactic, this is their philosophy. This is the way they play soccer. For a while, in the 60s and 70s, when catenaccio reigned, the philosophy became an ugly affair, a destructive approach, anti-soccer it was often called. But those days are past. We still have the Italians as the best defenders in the world, but the framework is much more generous now, the opportunities for open play, for sprightly attacking are much greater.

Which is what we saw against Spain. Solid, disciplined, skillful defending wedded to plenty of speedy, canny attacking play. Yes, Spain was frustrated, but by effective soccer, not by a defensive bunker. Italy actually had 6 shots on goal, to Spain’s 5. When it came to hitting the target, this was not Spain’s day, some of its shooting was almost laughably wide of the mark.

But the Spanish are a confident crew these days. Their approach, their soccer, never altered during the 120 minutes of play. No wild long balls, no hurried passing, as the time advanced. Faith in their skill-based style kept the Spanish hopes alive -- and facing them, we got the same faith, in a different type of skill-based game, from the Italians.

That ought to have meant a feast of top-class soccer. But top-class soccer doesn’t always guarantee excitement. Maybe the meeting of these two giants causes a too-rarefied soccer atmosphere. Whatever, this game could have done with occasional interludes of Brazilian chaos or Neymar trickery. In a word, it lacked emotion.

Quite appropriate then, that it should end up in that most synthetic of all sports episodes, the shootout. Which I despise. This time I do feel sorry -- for Italy’s Leonardo Bonucci, who fired his shot wide and so “lost the game” for Italy. But there you are, that’s what our brilliant leaders have done for us -- invent a tiebreaker that ensures there will be a single player, a pitiful victim to bear the weight of the loss in this activity that they’re always reminding us is a team sport.

Whatever, we’ve got the final most people wished for. Host Brazil against world champions Spain. A charged-up Brazil facing a probably depleted Spain, who played their semi a day later than Brazil, and had to endure the stresses and strains of overtime and the shootout.

So it looks like Brazil? I’d say yes were it not for the fact that I find Brazil so unreliable in defense, and so equally untrustworthy when it comes to goalscoring. But the driving forces of their game on Sunday will no doubt be excitement and emotion. They may just be enough to overcome smooth, efficient beauty of Spain’s game.
12 comments about "Battle of the Giants: Charged-up Brazil faces smooth Spain after scrappy semifinals".
  1. Jogo Bonito, June 28, 2013 at 6:12 a.m.

    wholeheartedly agree with PG here. somehow I enjoyed Italy's play. they would counter so effectively and Spain is still Spain. Always entertaining. I love watching Brazil, but I agree they're something missing. Uruguay disappointed me as well. With the shoot out, the only solution I can offer in FIFA tournaments is to just keep playing. They allow rosters of 22 so I say let them all dress and allow more subs after east overtime. 2 15 mins as it is now then a I say play 2 30 minute period of golden goal with 2 new subs allowed every period. Hopefully, a goal will be scored. if not more playing and more subs.

  2. feliks fuksman, June 28, 2013 at 9:15 a.m.

    Very well written article by Mr Gardner! Telling it like it is: Brazil with shaky defense and locking a consistent scorer. Italy played well yesterday and could have won. Hopefully we'll see a better final game than the semi-finals were.

  3. Andres Yturralde, June 28, 2013 at 9:37 a.m.

    Good call, Paul.

  4. Millwall America, June 28, 2013 at 9:54 a.m.

    Personally I love the penalty shootout; lots of drama and in my mind a fair way to ultimately resolve games between two evenly matched teams. Having teams play on until there is a winner could too easily result in pyrrhic victories. The team that "wins" the semi-final might end up so exhausted (even with additional subs) that the final becomes a walk-over.

  5. Ramon Creager, June 28, 2013 at 10:06 a.m.

    I'll say Spain, they have plenty of interchangeable parts if someone is depleted. If Fabregas and Soldado return, they'll be rested. If Iniesta or Xavi are tired, you could drop in Javi Martinez, Jesus Navas, Juan Mata, etc. I'd put their B team up against anyone's A team. As for the PKs, my view is that after 120 minutes of dead-even soccer, something has to give, and PKs are as good as anything else. A coin flip would be less emotionally devastating, but this is supposed to be a spectacle and PKs do provide that. (I do like something along the lines of Jogo Bonito's suggestion--Allow wholesale lineup changes with players from the sub bench at the beginning of the extra time, for example.) Finally, a word on tactics. I agree that Uruguay probably could maybe perhaps have played Brazil on even terms. I believe the odds of that are pretty poor, and if you get that call wrong, you get crushed. Just ask Tab Ramos.

  6. Daniel Clifton, June 28, 2013 at 11:08 a.m.

    I really enjoy watching the Italians play. The don't just play one style. I thought their performance against Germany in the Euros was brilliant. I personally enjoy penalty kick shoot outs. I don't think it is a good idea to keep teams playing after two hours unless you allow mass substitutions. I agree with PG about the Uruguay manager. They have 3 excellent attackers. They won the Copa America two years ago playing attacking soccer. Why change now? As everyone is saying Brazil is questionable defensively, so why not go after them.

  7. Allan Lindh, June 28, 2013 at 12:41 p.m.

    Gee, am I embarrassed to admit that I actually enjoyed both games -- thank heavens for Mr. Gardner for helping me see my error. Foolish me, I just attributed the sluggish play to the overwhelming heat and humidity, and the fact that most of the players had played several tight games in a short period of time. What I saw was four teams of very talented players who really wanted to win, and played hard throughout -- dolt that I am, I don't really ask for more. Only sad part was to see that Spain w/o Messi is not Barca -- they can pass the ball, but just can't seal the deal.

  8. Kent James, June 28, 2013 at 1:06 p.m.

    I thought the first 10 minutes of the Spain-Italy game were great, and the 2nd overtime was also great, but everything in the middle was poor. Spain controlled play, but rarely attacked. It was as if Xavi and Iniesta were playing defensive midfielders (leaving poor Busquets with absolutely nothing to do). Navas seemed to be the only one with any spark (I thought Torres put in a good effort, but how many times did he get the ball with absolutely no support?). Credit to the Italians; they really pressured the Spanish goal (and the play that ended with the diving header really deserved a goal). I'm hoping it was the heat and the humidity that sapped the Spanish attack; thinking it was winter in Brazil, I thought the temperatures would be mild, but I guess in the Northeast, that's never the case. I just hope both teams attack in the final; then it should be a real treat.

  9. Alexandr Kotlyachkov, June 28, 2013 at 1:44 p.m.

    I am very happy from that fact that Brazil and Spain will play final game. I want that Brazil-Spain will be final in championship in 2014. I want Brazilian victory. But I understand that team Germany also is strengthful. Its very interesting how Messi and team Argentina will play in 2014. And I hope that Russia team under ruling Fabio Capello interesting footbal.

  10. David Crowther, June 28, 2013 at 4:37 p.m.

    Daniel: I suspect Uruguay came into this cup with a defensive mindset because they'd allowed 15 goals and picked up only 2 pts (both at home) in the 5 qualifiers played during the 2012-13 season, while trying to play offensive soccer. They then switched to a very defensive formation away to Venezuela in their last qualifier (just days before the cup) and managed to pull out a crucial 1-0 win.

  11. Gus Keri, June 28, 2013 at 8:34 p.m.

    I enjoyed how Italy dominated Spain in the second half but the extra time was all Spain. Spain should have won it before the PKs. About the Uruguay, I was very disappointed with their tactics. They could have taken the game to the Brazilians and even won it with a bit of luck.

  12. tom brown, July 2, 2013 at 3:01 p.m.

    Battle of the Giants: Vatican criminals vs. Resto Del Mundo. Confirmation Cup meant to unite the Vatican controlled countries as a bogus pre WC event to consolidate the corruption status quo. Uruguay was a stand-in for Argentina. Whoever wins the Sport loses. Just more vatican control making fans into slaves to pay for their own slavery. While monsignors rush from Swiss Banks carrying 20 million Euros of Soccer Money & getting caught. That is a mere pittance to what their couriers carry on a daily basis - never searched as a kindly monsignor cannot be suspected of criminality. Truth: Soccer America - USE IT, keep using it.

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