FIFA Confederations Cup, Group A preview
Rio de Janeiro: Brazil meet Asian Cup winners Japan in the Confederations Cup opener in Brasilia Saturday and Concacaf champions Mexico make their tournament debut against European runners up Italy a day later in Group A fixtures.
Brazil and Italy are perhaps favourites to progress to the semifinals but their paths are littered with obstacles. The Brazil-Italy clash in Salvador June 22 promises to be one of the matches of the tournament while the host nation`s duel with Mexico in Fortaleza June 19 offers an intriguing sequel to last year`s Olympic final.
The South American nation is the most successful in Confederations Cup history, having won the tournament three times since its inception in 1992.
The Selecao have undergone an overhaul since Luiz Felipe Scolari replaced Mano Menezes as national coach in November last year. Gone are former FIFA world player of the year winners Ronaldinho and Kaka as Scolari puts his faith in youth.
While the spotlight will shine ever so brightly on Barcelona`s new 57 million-euro striker Neymar, Scolari`s side has impressive depth all over the pitch.
Chelsea midfielder Oscar was arguably the team`s best player in their 2-2 draw with England last week and Sunday`s 3-0 victory over France. He will be deployed either on the right of a three-man attacking midfield or in a free-roaming playmaker role, where he was used against France to devastating effect.
Led by captain Thiago Silva, Brazil`s defence promises to be disciplined and organized, as is Scolari`s hallmark. It also boasts the combined attacking threats of Dani Alves, Marcelo and David Luiz.
The `Blue Samurai` last week became the first team to qualify for next year`s World Cup in Brazil when Keisuke Honda`s injury-time spot-kick earned them a 1-1 draw against Australia.
Alberto Zaccheroni`s team play a quick, intricate passing game in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Manchester United`s Shinji Kagawa usually operating on the left side of midfield.
Other players to watch are Inter Milan`s Yuto Nagatomo, who poses an attacking threat with his probing runs from left-back, and CSKA Moscow`s Keisuke Honda, the heartbeat of the team in the No.10 role.
Japan, who have qualified for the past five World Cups, are Asia`s top-rated team at No.32 in the FIFA world rankings.
In their last Confederations Cup appearance, at the 2005 tournament in Germany, Japan failed to progress beyond the group stage despite defeating Greece 1-0 and drawing 2-2 with eventual champions Brazil.
While Spain have a host of players from Barcelona and Real Madrid, Juventus similarly dominate Italy`s squad. Eight of the 23 players named by coach Cesare Prandelli are from the Turin club, including defenders Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini.
The trio have been nicknamed `Il Muro` for their hermetic performances for Juventus over the past two seasons and will provide the backbone of Prandelli`s outfit in Brazil.
Despite turning 34 last month, midfielder Andrea Pirlo remains one of the Azzurri`s key weapons, having shown at Euro 2012 and during the 2012-13 Serie A season that his penchant for a defence-splitting pass has not eluded him.
Former Manchester City striker Mario Balotelli enters the tournament in peak form, having scored 12 goals in 13 appearances for AC Milan this year.
Italy made the eight-team tournament due to their Euro 2012 final conquerors Spain already qualifying as World Cup champions.
Mexico are currently third in the Concacaf zone World Cup standings with just seven points from five matches.
Before arriving in Brazil they host top-placed Costa Rica Tuesday, a match they must win to avoid a hazardous end to their qualifying campaign.
Striker Javier Hernandez has scored 18 goals in 36 matches for Manchester United last season and Mexico will rely on him to continue that form during the Confederations Cup.
The 25-year-old is already Mexico`s fifth most prolific goalscorer in history with 32 goals from 47 appearances.
Coach Jose Manuel de la Torre can also count on Valencia winger Andres Guardado and former West Ham United forward Pablo Barrera to trouble opposition defence.
The team`s midfield will again be led by veteran Gerardo Torrado, who is aiming to play in his fourth World Cup next year.