Confederations Cup 2013 Team of the Group Stages

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The Confederations Cup has brought with it the usual dose of shackle-free, festival like football.  A year before the real thing and often billed as a dress-rehearsal, the attacking verve usually on display is in stark contrast to the increasingly turgid and cautious football on show during the showcase.  The Group stages recently concluded in deserving fashion, concluding a grossly engrossing spectacle with more 90 minutes of thrilling football.  After three rounds, some players have stood out, providing consistently excellent displays and have been integral to their teams’ displays.

Goalkeeper

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Photograph courtesy of daylife

Vincent Enyeama

2010 is not too far in the past for us to forget his remarkable displays at the World Cup.  In the time since, perhaps one other goalkeeper (Javi Varas) has left Lionel Messi kicking the air in frustration, wondering how he would walk off the pitch without the match ball, not to speak of a goal.  Now the official captain of the side following Joseph Yobo’s demotion, he has led by example, turning in error-free displays (key for a goalkeeper) allied to making his usual repertoire of remarkable saves.  Against Spain, as Nigeria sought to take initiative, he was repeatedly called upon to bail his team out and did not disappoint, sweeping up behind his defence or foiling the likes of Pedro, Soldado and Xavi time and again.

In a tournament which has so far been graced by somewhat less-than-convincing goalkeeping, Enyeama remained a beacon of assuredness for his nation.  If all goes according to plan, an Enyeama-led Nigeria should be back next year for the big showcase.

Defenders

Right Back

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Photograph courtesy of aug-cdn.com

Marama Vahirua (Tahiti)

Tahiti have won lots of friends and admirers at this tournament, not only for their rather attractive status as gross underdogs but also their unwillingness to sit back defend despite the temptation to do so in hope of avoiding trouncing (which they suffered).  Chockful of unemployed individuals, tour guides and accountants, right back cum right midfielder, Marama Vahirua stood out for me.  A former France u-21 International and indeed, Oceania Footballer of the Year of 2005, he is an experienced head and the one player on the side who can boast of top-flight experience.  Against Nigeria, he led his side admirably, setting up Tahiti’s only goal from a corner kick, one which the world, like the Tahitians, celebrated with fervent jubilation. Tahiti conceded the most goals in Confederations Cup history, helped some of the world’s premier strikers pad their statistics but in the end, they showed they could play a bit – Vahirua was the best of the lot.

Left Back

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Photograph courtesy of RTE Sport

Jordi Alba (Spain)

Roadrunner, Duracell Bunny, Michael Johnson…call him what you want, Barcelona and Spain’s left back is irrepressibly electric.  Spain had to make do with the unheralded Capdevilla for years, their left side often seen as a weak link.  Nowadays, it is probably their most potent area, the right side now bequeathed to the oft-hapless Alvaro Arbeloa.  Jordi Alba, formerly a left winger/attacking midfielder, provided the vertical thrust and the very necessary width to Spain’s rather mid-centric play.  His display against Uruguay was truly excellent, repeatedly bombing forward and combining with Cesc and Pedro.  He topped that, however, with a scinitillating display against Nigeria, topped off by 2 fantastic finishes both showcasing the variety of skills in his possession.  Spain’s next game happens to be against Italy and Alba will be hoping to replicate his goalscoring form against a side he registered against very famously but a year ago.

Centre Back

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Photograph courtesy of sueddeutsche

Sergio Ramos (Spain)

There has always been more than an inkling of ‘a beautiful brute’ to Sergio Ramos.  A very comely young man, over his career, he has developed a reputation for recklessness and foul play which has seen him pick up nearly 20 red cards in his professional career.  Yet, he remains one of Spain’s Vice-captains, is vice-captain of his club side, Real Madrid, and has been integral to Spain’s tripleta in recent years.  Make no bones about it – he is fine footballer, taking the idea of a ‘ball playing centre back’ to a different level.  His passing so far has stood out, mixing incisive passes into the middle with searching long balls (his pass to Roberto Soldado against Nigeria was immaculate – the Valencia striker fluffed one of a trio of very presentable chances).  However, he has remained near faultless at the back, with the likes of Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani and Okpala (of Nigeria) bullied into submission.

Centre Back

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Photograph courtesy of Eurosport

Thiago Silva (Brazil)

It was a tough one, with David Luiz hugely impressive as well (his decision to play on despite having broken his nose against Mexico was hugely courageous and gained the admiration of many) but his sidekick just shades it for having played all the games.  A curiously unassuming character, Thiago Silva is widely regarded as the best defender in world football and so far, he has only enhanced this reputation.  While Sergio Ramos is arguably the more talented of the two, PSG’s man possesses a calmness of mind and body which renders him much less of a liability to his teams than Ramos.  Against Italy, he and his partner combined to nullify the hitherto dominant Mario Balotelli and prior to this had led La Seleçao to two clean sheets against enterprising Mexico and Japan sides.

Midfielders

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Photograph courtesy of calgaryherald

Yasuhito Endo (Japan)

The veteran midfielder, despite his side losing all three of its games, shone in his deep-lying midfielder position.  His standout performance came in what is the match of the tournament so far, and for me, one of the best games of football I have been privileged to see live.  Despite losing so harshly to Italy, Japan dominated what was possibly the most dominant defeat in recent memory – Endo was firmly at the heart of this.  Completely transformed from their listless display against Brazil, Japan upped the tempo, finding a fluency and bravery in their passing which has since led some to dub their style tiki-takawa, aping Spain’s much aped passing football.  Endo, in addition to setting up Okazaki for a header to bring the score to 3-3, created a massive 5 chances for his teammates, joint top with Keisuke Honda who naturally shone brighter due to his advance positioning on the pitch.  Japan’s most capped player (with 133 appearances), he will be returning to Brazil next year as he hopes to improve on his side’s exciting potential.

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Photograph courtesy of Kickoff

John Mikel Obi (Nigeria)

Chelsea’s often lambasted defensive midfielder, Nigeria’s midfield colossus – it’s difficult to reconcile both antithetical figures.  At Chelsea, he is often accused of playing within himself and arguably he does, particularly in  light of his superb performances for his country.  At the African Cup of Nations, his dominance over Yaya Toure as Nigeria swept Ivory Coast might have been a one-off but for the consistency of these performances.

 So far in Brazil, he has been Nigeria’s standout performer, the one player truly capable of bringing a svelt cerebral touch to Nigeria’s dynamic and energetic play.  His goal against Uruguay, a beautiful turn past Diego Lugano before sweeping a left footed finish past Nestor Muslera was worthy of his shirt number.  He also attempted by far the most passes against the Uruguayans (80), completing 85% of them, creating 3 chances for his teammates and completing a whopping 5 dribbles, the most on the pitch.  Against Spain, he ran the show for Nigeria again, picking out some truly delightful passes (including one in the 1st half which totally bisected Spain’s backline – but for the haphazard finishing of Nigeria’s forwards…) while successfully completing 3 dribbles, 2nd most behind the wondrous Andres Iniesta.

Mikel has certainly showcased his myriad of talents, and being linked with a move away from Chelsea, this summer might provide him with the opportunity to seek pastures which will allow him to truly blossom.  As a twitter pal of mine said, “Mikel is everything I want an African player to resemble”.

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Photograph courtesy of Dailymail

Andres Iniesta (Spain)

Spain’s number 6 is probably the best midfielder on the planet, without exception, and repeatedly brings his A-game to the grandest of occasions.  As Spain expressed their other-wordly dominance in the last 3 rounds of games, Iniesta was at the heart of it all.  His recent performance, against Nigeria, was masterful, directing the flow of play as effortlessly as machine, Xavi, while repeatedly breaking Nigeria’s lines with those wondrous dribbles of his.

They say stats don’t tell it all, but a snapshot of Iniesta’s against Nigeria pretty much speaks for itself – 4 dribbles (most on the pitch), 5 Key Passes (most on the pitch), 5 Throughballs attempted with 3 successful (most on the pitch), 110 Passes attempted at 95% completion.  Amidst all this, he was dispossessed just once, despite the increasingly risky manoeuvres.  In Spain’s first game against Uruguay, he was selected as FIFA’s Man of the Match, utterly dominating with his awareness, passing (122 attempted at 94% accuracy) and dribbling (7 completed – nobody apart from Arbeloa {surprise!!} completed more than 1).  I am eagerly looking forward to more Andres magic (Jump to 1.50 of this video for a ridiculous pirouette flick pass) against Italy.

Forwards

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Photograph courtesy of Forza Italian Football

Mario Balotelli (Italy)

Super Mario is a different player in an Italy shirt from the often nonchalant player we see in his club colours.  Born in Italy, and only granted his citizenship when he turned 18, Italy’s number 9 bleeds as blue as any of his Caucasian counterparts.  Playing as the lone striker in Italy’s setup, he has showcased his very best qualities in Brazil, scoring 2 goals, setting up another with an audacious backheel and generally creating chaos for opposition backlines.

A constant menace with his accurate shooting against Mexico, he was rewarded for his persistence with a bundled goal which spoke volumes of his desire for the Azzuri cause.  Against Japan, he converted an ice-cool penalty to complete Italy’s comeback, showcasing his renown nervelessness on the spot.  Very capable of playing with his back to goal while also immensely comfortable running channels or spinning in behind opposition backlines, Balotelli has provided Italy with a variety of options due to his multiplicity of skills.  He will miss the match against Spain with a thigh strain (the temptation to always use Mario as the outball left him prone to constant heavy treatment from defenders – it has told).  He is only 22 but Italy can confidently rest assured that they have a player who can become the best striker on the planet.

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Photograph courtesy of Ripple’s Web

Pedro (Spain)

Scored via a deflection against Uruguay, was rested against Tahiti and came back into the side against Nigeria to set up Fernando Torres with an immaculate cross, Pedro is probably the most in-form Spain player of the last year (11 international goals since September) and interestingly in a year that he has struggled for his best form with his club, Barcelona, has become a key component for the national side.  What he brings to the side – energy, pace, movement and finishing.  Spain, at the Euros, was accused of being too one-paced.  At this tournament, Pedro has brought added verticality to Spain’s playing, providing a direct option for Spain as they look to spring offside traps more often or exploit space on the counter.  It would do him a disservice to merely pass him off as a roadrunner, chiefly in the side to provide the pace.  Technically, he is a very capable footballer, showcasing his ability to involve himself in Spain’s swift and precise tiki-taka across both games he has featured in.

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Photograph courtesy of Malaysian Insider

Neymar Jnr. (Brazil)

So he has won the Man of the Match award in all 3 of the games he has played in so far, punctuating each with goals befitting of the virtuosity of his genius.  Coming into the tournament, the talk was whether Neymar was merely an overhyped showpony, content to dance and jig his way through South American defences used to playing deeper than a Vidic-led Manchester United.  Less than satisfactory recent performances against Italy, Russia and England further cast aspersions as to the true nature of his talent – then Barcelona went and paid close to 50 Million quid for him.  The pressure could have been suffocating, particularly with Brazil so badly struggling for form.

So it’s the 3rd minute of the first game of the tournament and Neymar whips a 25 yard volley into the top corner, as Alan Shearer said, ‘making what is a truly difficult skill look incredibly simple’.   His goal against Mexico, a left-footed volley from the edge of the box was made to look as effortless as the first.  Against Italy, his free-kick, wrongfooting Buffon, was tagged as a moment of genius by his coach, Scolari, who had this to say – “He saw that Buffon took a step to the side and he knew that he was going to hit it in the corner.”  While I am careful to avoid jumping onto the Neymar bandwagon – while he has punctuated these contests with some moments of utterly sublime genius (his assist for Jo against Mexico was something to behold), he still drifts out of games too often, not really influencing play as much as his prodigious talent should allow him to.  As confidence builds, this will come, but it is indeed astounding to think that this is a Neymar with much improving to come.

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