Confed Cup Group Previews

Posted by James Tyler

Alex Grimm/Getty ImagesThis Spanish generation has won a ton of trophies; the Confed Cup could well bring more glory to La Roja.

For some observers, the Confederations Cup may have a hokey, inauthentic feel -- hey, let's jam a competition into an otherwise quiet summer, fill it with authorized vendor zones, official beer, Sepp Blatter and generally low-stakes soccer -- but to view it so cynically means to ignore its charm. It's short; it's somewhat inclusive of small, easy-to-love minnows (c'mon, Tahiti!), it's relaxed and it's a good chance to see a handful of bigger teams measure themselves on the road to the World Cup.

Started in 1992 as the King Fahd Cup (the first two tournaments were run by the Saudi Arabian FA as a good way to get some top-class opponents to face the national team) and taken over by FIFA since 1997, it has provided some memorable moments, particularly if you're a U.S. fan.

In 1992, Bruce Murray scored twice in a 5-2 win over the Cote D'Ivoire as the U.S. finished third of four teams, the other goals coming from Eric Wynalda, Marcelo Balboa and the ageless Cobi Jones. In 1999, the U.S. stunned Germany 2-0 to escape the group stage having beaten New Zealand and held Brazil to a 1-0 result, only to get upstaged by Mexico 1-0 in the semifinals. (El Tri went on to beat the Selecao 4-3 and take home the Cup.) Then of course came 2009, the famous 2-0 semifinal win over Spain and the 2-0 halftime lead over Brazil in the final that was finally overturned just six minutes from time.

To put it simply, the tournament may lack some star power but it's never short of intrigue. With that in mind, let's predict how the groups might play out.

Group A
Can you have a group of death when there are only two groups? There were few kind draws to be had, given the shallow field, but the host nation couldn't have received a more painful trio of opponents. If this is where the real World Cup panic begins, then so be it.

Back to the death thing. Group A is lethal in many ways. There is homegrown death in yellow and green, the kind that overwhelms you with its stadium-filling samba awe. There's calm and calculated death from Japan, a side blessed with technical brilliance and admirable sangfroid. There is eyebrow-raising, full-throated, fiery death from Italy, brutish and seasoned and reflexive and led by a bearded musketeer from Lombardy. Finally, there is unpredictable death via El Tri, a team that fluctuates between SWAT team and Keystone Kops.

It is arguably Japan that will cause Brazil the most agita, and it's not hard to see why. For one, the "Samurai Blue" are as comfortable on the ball as Oscar & Co., blessed with as many natural dribblers and technicians in midfield. There's also the peerless fitness of Alberto Zaccheroni's squad, the abundance of speed from wide positions and the overall organization that the Italian manager brings to the fore. The Selecao might struggle to control the tempo in the manner that they prefer. Playing off the back foot is not the mark of a champion, nor will it mollify the impatient home crowds. If ever the luxury of playing in familiar environs is to prove an advantage, Luiz Felipe Scolari's side will need every last bit this summer.

Italy's fortunes ride on a strong start against arguably the group's weakest team. Jose Manuel "Chepo" de la Torre will not be surprised by the Azzurri's seasoned squad, though it will be a chore to contain it. El Tri simply doesn't have anyone who can match what Andrea Pirlo brings in midfield. Underestimating Mexico will catch less disciplined sides off guard -- El Tri's record versus the Selecao in recent years is especially good -- but there are few to be found in Brazil this summer.

This is a group in which patience will truly be a virtue, especially as Italy's final group game versus Brazil might find the Azzurri in desperate need of a winning result in order to advance. Whoever falters in their first game -- it's not unreasonable to think Japan could sneak at least a draw from a Selecao side that's been unable to win of late -- could find it hard to recover.

Predicted finish: Brazil, Japan, Italy, Mexico

Group B
A much more gentle feel awaits the other quartet, though it's not a pure "happy just to be here" group by any means. Yes, tiny Tahiti will simply relish and embrace the sensation of squaring off against the legends it has watched from afar, but the other three nations all have a decent amount to prove.

Spain is clearly looking to dispel notions of weakness. Expect a full-bore, possession-based assault to startle and subdue more emotional opponents like Uruguay and Nigeria. It might be a tournament for clearly deserving understudies to shine -- Roberto Soldado, Javi Martinez and Juan Mata all dazzled in 2012-13 yet still play a definitive second fiddle to the established upper class.

As such, expect comfortable, comprehensive victories across the board. They might not involve a ton of goals, though; La Roja rarely bludgeons teams (unless, a la the Euro 2012 final, it needs to) but will but rather smother all that stand in its path.

And so a pitched battle for second emerges. One would fancy Nigeria to have the upper hand; with the bulk of the Super Eagles squad intact from a successful 2013 Africa Cup of Nations campaign, there's a cohesion and unity that Uruguay has yet to master despite having the better individual talent.

Again, the schedule plays a decisive role. Victor Moses & Co. get Tahiti first -- apologies to the plucky French Polynesians -- and should face Uruguay in the second round with a three-point cushion, putting the onus on Oscar Tabarez's side to attack. Spain would have little genuine incentive to fight hard (assuming two wins from two), rendering whatever Uruguay does to Tahiti in the third round as a gaudy irrelevance.

Predicted finish: Spain, Nigeria, Uruguay, Tahiti

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