Spain outshone in Maracanã dress rehearsal

Brazil too strong for world champion, which surrendered its habitual control of midfield

Brazil's forward Neymar celebrates after scoring against Spain during their FIFA Confederations Cup Brazil 2013 final match.
Brazil's forward Neymar celebrates after scoring against Spain during their FIFA Confederations Cup Brazil 2013 final match.CHRISTOPHE SIMON (AFP)

It shouldn’t be seen as too big a deal. Under the calm guidance of Vicente del Bosque, Spain has made history since the last time it exited a tournament a defeated team. That loss to the USA in the 2009 Confederations Cup in South Africa was a far more low-key event, as was the competition itself. If Brazil’s 3-0 Sunday night thumping of the world and European champion feels slightly more traumatic, it is because a final in the Maracanã against the host nation seemed like a dress rehearsal for something bigger.

The truth is that Spain deserves nothing more than mixed reviews in the aftermath of the 2013 Confederations Cup after failing to exert the tight control over games that has become La Roja’s hallmark over the glorious past half-decade. Earlier in the tournament, Spain had gotten away with it in games that swung from end to end, having more nous in the box than Nigeria – which posed a similar physical threat to that of Brazil, but with less panache – and then the semifinal against Italy, which could argue it had shaded two goalless hours on points before succumbing in a penalty shootout.

Rehearsals are meant for experimentation. With Xabi Alonso absent because of injury, Del Bosque did not seek to replace that half of his mainstay midfield tandem, leaving Sergio Busquets alone in the engine room. Brazil, which showed a singular determination to snatch its opportunity for a morale-boosting triumph, rushed into the gaps Spain offered, pushing out of defense at speed and closing down hard on Spain’s ball distributors. La Roja rarely succeeded in fanning out across the midfield in standard formation, encircling the opposition on the edge of its own box. More often than not, risky passes had to be tried and Brazil, once the move had been deactivated, swarmed in behind the Spanish midfield, tormenting the visiting back line on a torrid night in Rio de Janeiro.

Del Bosque did not seek to replace Xabi Alonso in Spain's engine room

While wily Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari can take huge satisfaction in having forged a competitive team from unpromising auguries one year before a World Cup on home soil, Neymar can now point to a big international occasion on which he fully delivered, teasing Spain’s defense, scoring a beauty for Brazil’s second, and rightly being recognized as player of the tournament.

The script was perfect for Brazil and a highly unusual one for Spain. Fred caused near-hysteria in the Maracanã after just 95 seconds, cleverly chipping a fortuitous loose ball over Iker Casillas and into the net after falling in the six-yard box. In the knockout phases of its three consecutive major championship wins Spain has never gone behind – more typically the challenge is to remain patient and wait for possession and control to convert into goals.

That pattern of play only threatened to emerge briefly in the middle of the first half, by which time Casillas had made a save from Paulinho and Arbeloa had been let off a possible red card after impeding Neymar when the number 10 had an open field ahead. Soon after, Ramos, on an unhappy night for the Real Madrid defender, was also shown a yellow card that could have been red, this time for a desperate lunge on the excellent Oscar.

After another save by Casillas against Fred, there came a moment toward the end of the first half that could well have changed the game. Pedro seemed to have completed a counterattack when his shot beat Júlio César, but the athletic David Luiz worked a minor miracle by chipping the ball over the bar and to safety at full stretch. Brazil then doubled its lead when Neymar combined with Oscar on the edge of the area before smashing an unstoppable left-foot shot inside Casillas’ near post in the 44th minute.

Del Bosque might have been expected to tinker with Spain’s midfield at half time but he decided that removing Neymar’s chief victim Arbeloa was an even bigger priority, putting César Azpilicueta in at right back. But almost immediately after the restart, it was Fred who popped up in Brazil’s left channel to rifle home the third and seal victory.

All that remained were some mainly unfortunate details for Spain, with the exception of the introduction of substitute Jesús Navas (for Juan Mata) — the new Manchester City signing showing the greatest threat Spain was able to muster in the Maracanã on the back of the winger’s decisive penalty in the semifinal shootout. The first time Navas received the ball, he earned a penalty as Marcelo foolishly dived in. But Ramos dragged the kick wide.

With that momentary glimmer of hope having been extinguished, Gerard Piqué got a straight red for his cynical scythe to stop yet another Neymar gallop forward. Tired and happy, the host then eased off the gas a little, but Júlio César had time to shine in Brazil’s goal, denying Pedro and David Villa (on for Fernando Torres) after Navas had found a little space at last.

“I am looking at the positives,” said Del Bosque. “I think we have had a good Cup with an extraordinary atmosphere in the group over 28 days together.” La Roja has been beaten, but it will surely regroup.

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