It is a meeting to make the mouth water. It cannot help but stir the emotions and draw in the committed and neutral alike.
There is history, tradition, pride, passion, and quality by the truckload. As two of soccer’s juggernauts collide once again, this time at the FIFA Confederations Cup, there is no question host Brazil against Italy is one of the marquee matchups in the world game.
Eras and their respective stars come and go. The rivalry, however, endures between two nations who have won nine of the 19 World Cups to date. Perhaps they will meet again in the summer of 2014, but for the time being there is a more pressing matter at hand.
Namely, avoiding Spain.
Neither would admit it publicly. It just wouldn’t do for the Brazilians or the Italians to hand the psychological edge to the world’s No. 1 team at this World Cup dress rehearsal. But both are well aware a route to the final would be appreciably easier to navigate without facing the Spaniards in the knockout stage.
Hence the importance of this latest encounter. After two wins apiece over Japan and Mexico, Brazil and Italy are already assured of advancing from Group A into the semifinals. What matters is in which order they finish. The winner of the group will face the Group B runner-up, and vice versa. With a superior goal difference, Brazil needs just a tie to top the standings. Italy will probably need the win to stay away from Spain.
The incentive is clear. Not just for now, but for the road ahead. A year before hosting the World Cup, Brazil is intent on demonstrating it is back among the world’s best despite its misleading FIFA ranking. Italy needs to remind its European rivals — including the watching Germans — the Azzurri can overcome the best on Brazilian soil.
Brazil and Italy both have new leading men. Twenty-one-year-old Brazilian Neymar has already demonstrated the precocious skill for which Barcelona has paid a king’s ransom. Mario Balotelli, 22, has the ability, if not yet the maturity, to be Italy’s star striker for years to come.
On paper it could be a shootout between two young guns, but I’m not convinced that is what will transpire. Neymar lacks competitive experience against the world’s best defences and, despite its uncharacteristic mistakes against Japan, there are few better or more difficult to penetrate than Italy’s.
There remains a question mark over Balotelli’s temperament. He has all the tools, including the strength, to cause Thiago Silva and David Luiz real problems. But Brazil has yet to concede a goal at this tournament and if the Milan striker gets isolated and frustrated his effect may be minimal.
Brazil will look for an early breakthrough. The hosts have duly delivered in the wins over Japan and Mexico and home advantage could again be key in Salvador. In stark contrast, Italy’s first order of business must be to remain solid for the opening 20 minutes or so and take the crowd out of the equation.
If Cesare Prandelli’s men can achieve this first critical mission, Italy’s chances will improve considerably. Brazil will naturally have the early momentum, but it will shift, slowly but surely, to the Europeans the longer the game goes without a goal.
The outcome may hinge on those not on the field, rather than the players on view. Italy must make do without the heart and soul of its midfield and perhaps the team as a whole. Andrea Pirlo is sidelined through injury while Daniele De Rossi is suspended for the group finale.
The Azzurri may be able to fly on one engine — without both, it may be time to adopt the brace position.