KEIR RADNEDGE in RIO DE JANEIRO: Brazil against Spain was the ultimate match-up of which FIFA had dreamed on undertaking the draw for the Confederations Cup last December. What they might not have expected was that the hosts would plunder the spoils by a decisive 3-0.
Fred (two) and man of the match Neymar hammered the goals which set Maracana quivering and, while Spain saw Sergio Ramos miss a penalty and Gerard Pique sent off there was no arguing with either the result or the margin.
Spain’s unbeaten competitive run thus ended after three years two weeks and/or 30 matches. They had previously been unbeaten in 26 matches since losing a friendly to England in November 2011.
However Brazil, despite sitting down at a modest 22 in the world rankings, had set out as favourites against the world and European champions. Not only were they the hosts in a sea of yellow in their iconic Maracana fortress but they had enjoyed a day’s extra rest than Spain since their respective semi-finals.
A commanding display packed with energy, drive, commitment and a high level of skill more than justified their pre-match status.
While the 80,000 fans inside Maracana had wound themelves up for the match as many protesters outside were being held at bay by the riot police outside.
Indeed, the protesters managed to infiltrate the Opening Ceremony. Two emerged from beneath one of the beetle-like dancing pods and tried to unfurl a protest banner before being bundled away.
As for the football, Brazil retained the side who started the semi-final victory over Uruguay while Spain made one change from the line-up who began the shootout win over Italy: Juan Mata replacing David Silva.
Within little more than a minute Brazil were ahead. Hulk’s right-wing cross eluded a tumble of players in the box then ricocheted back off Neymar and Arbeloa for Fred, lying flat on the edge of the six-yard box, to hook the ball beyond Iker Casillas.
The site of the ball flailing the back of the net prompted an almighty roar of approval all around Maracana.
Soon after that it could have been two. Brazil, playing with pace and energyand pressing high up the pitch, caught Spain nervily open again. This time, however, Oscar drove a shot wide with time and space at least to have made Casillas work.
Spain had another let-off in the 16th minute when Neymar flew through the air as if he been shot out of a cannon after being pulled round by Arbeloa as he set off in pursuit of a long clearance through the middle. A ruck of players ensued before Dutch referee Bjorn Kuipers showed Arbeloa a yellow card instead of the red which the Brazilians had demanded.
Spain had been given no time to launch their usual passing game but they found their feet gradually, as Brazil’s initial storm began to blow itself out. Brazil keeper Julio Cesar was forced into his first ‘serious’ save by a low skidding drive from Andres Iniesta.
In fact Spain should have equalised five minutes before half-time. A classic inter-passing counter between Mata, Torres and Mata climaxed with Pedro slicing in from the right with the goal at his mercy. His shot beat Julio Cesar but David Luiz, reading the action, slid in to make the important goal-line clearance, probably, of his career.
Precisely how important was demonstrated two minutes when Brazil attacked, Neymar swapped passes with Oscar and drove an unstoppable left-foot shot up past Casillas to send Brazil in at half-time with a two-goal lead.
The last time Spain had conceded twice in a competitive fixture was against Scotland in a Euro qualifier in October, 2010. On that occasion they hit back to win 3-2. But this Brazil were a very different proposition to that Scotland.
Vicente Del Bosque first gesture towards the crisis was to replace the disastrously shredded Arbeloa with Cesar Azpilicueta at half-time.
Unfortunately the poor Chelsea fullback found himself no more resilient in only the second minute after the restart. Again Brazil seared in between Spain’s midfield and defence, again Hulk provided the pass which Neymar dummied so that Fred could shoot between Azpilicueta’s legs, off Casillas’s fingertips and into the far bottom corner of the net.
This was the Fluminense striker’s fifth goal in the five games of the Confed Cup but only the second time he had scored twice in a game for his country.
Now the issue was not whether Spain could turn the game around but whether they could keep their dignity.
Del Bosque immediately pulled off Mata and sent on right-winger Jesus Navas. The move had an immediate effect when he won a penalty after being tripped by Marcelo. His work went to waste however when Sergio Ramos drove the spotkick wide of Julio Cesar’s right-hand post.
Maracana reverberated to chants of: “O campeão voltou [The champions are back]” and the prospect of Brazil’s victory was assured when Gerard Pique was sent off in the 68th minute for tripping Neymar in full flight.
Pedro was defied by Julio Cesar at one end and the newly-arrived Jo by Casillas at the other but, effectively, it was all over barring the deafening . . .
Brazil: Julio Cesar – Dani Alves, Thiago Silva, David Luiz, Marcelo – Paulinho (Hernandes 88), Luiz Gustavo, Oscar – Hulk (Jadson 73), Fred (Jo 80), Neymar. Coach: Scolari.
Spain: Casillas – Arbeloa (Azpilicueta 46), Sergio Ramos, Pique, Alba – Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta – Pedro, Torres (Villa 59), Mata (Navas 52). Coach: Del Bosque.
Referee: Bjorn Kuipers (Hol).