In the last year or so, I have devoted quite a number of posts to the exploits of the Tahitian national team and their qualification for this year’s Confederations Cup. Now the mini-World Cup tournament is almost upon us, with the opening match between Brazil and Japan taking place on Saturday. The World Cup host for next year, which of course is Brazil, is (as has been the case since 2005) hosting the tournament, with some new or fully refurbished stadia getting tested out. Of particular interest will be the newly renovated Maracana, which, having hosted the 2-2 draw between Brazil and England last week, will be hosting the match between Italy and Mexico on Sunday.
The format for the tournament is reasonably well set now: the winners of the World Cup, plus each continental championship winner (and in the case of Europe, the Euro 2012 runner-up) and the host country are split into two groups of four countries. The top two then play straight knockouts in the semi-finals with the winner progressing to the final, with a third-place play-off for the semi-losers to waste some more time. Here’s how I see things unfolding.
Brazil are under enormous pressure from their fellow countrymen to perform. Recent friendly results (including a draw and a defeat against England) have not been overly inspiring and the focus will very much be on Big Phil Scolari to deliver a trophy prior to the main event in 12 months time. Although the group they’ve been placed in is not an easy one, I think they should finish top of the group, particularly given the two easiest games (against Japan and Mexico) come first.
In second place, I see Italy coming through, though with quite a struggle. Their strange result against Haiti (a 2-2 draw) on Tuesday evening does not bode entirely well; however with their young, exciting forward line (Balotelli and El Shaarawy) and fairly resolute defence, they should have just about enough to make the semi-finals.
The two giants of the game will leave Japan and Mexico behind them, although it should be noted that neither of these sides are mugs in any way. The Japanese should be fairly comfortable in their performances having already qualified for next year’s big tournament, while the Mexicans have had a strange qualification tournament thus far with one win and five draws. I look forward particularly to seeing Keisuke Honda again strutting his stuff for Japan.
Obvious choice for group winners here too. Spain didn’t do overly well in the 2009 Confederations Cup (losing in the semi-finals to the United States) but given their utterly imperious form in the Euros last summer, they should come through their group with ease. It should be interesting to see if, given his classy play this season for Bayern Munich, Javi Martinez gets a run in a defensive midfield position.
I’m going to stick my neck out a tad here and say that Nigeria will join the Spaniards in the semi-finals. The Nigerians should still be riding high after that Cup of Nations success earlier this year, and will again be looking to John Obi Mikel to provide some non-Chelsea-standard performances for his country to see them through. Having said that, they have just had a bit of a shoddy 1-1 draw away to Namibia in their latest World Cup qualifier.
A clear third place (with a shout at second) in the group will go to Uruguay. Patently, they have some quality players with likes of Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani and Diego Forlan; what is clear from last year’s Olympic tournament is that Oscar Washington Tabarez has been unable to put in much of a succession plan for his side going forward. Their squad has a few 22-year-olds in there but they are mostly relying on the same slowly deteriorating bodies as they did in 2010.
If Tahiti don’t finish bottom of the group, I will be utterly, utterly amazed. The French Polynesian side have played two competitive matches this year; a 2-0 win at home to the Solomon Islands and a 1-0 defeat away to fellow French colonial underlings New Caledonia. At most, they will look for a goal and/or a point in the competition, with their only foreign based player Marama Vahirua the most likely source of that elusive goal. I fancy Spain in particular could reach double figures against the lads from the Pacific.
As for a winner of the tournament, I do fancy Brazil; as Tim Vickery often says, given the number of domestic-based players in the Brazil squad these chaps should now be reaching the peak of their form. Compare this with Spain where their players have all had a long, hard slog of a season and that difference in form could make a telling contribution to a short 8-team tournament. This is of course a dress rehearsal for next year; one hopes that as well as providing entertaining football, that Brazil’s infrastructure and stadia stand up to the test that the World Cup’s younger, less important sibling provides.