It is a shame the Confederations Cup gets viewed with so much cynicism. It is generally perceived as a tournament put together to enable FIFA to peruse the preparation and facilities of next years World Cup host. What often gets overlooked is the fact that the Confederations Cup offers competing nations some very useful match practice in tournament format prior to 2010’s main event. What cannot be replicated of course, is the intensity and importance that a crucial World Cup game would naturally bring, but nevertheless, if utilised properly, the Confederations offers good competition against some strong opposition.
La Nazionale’s first game comes against the United States, in South Africa after winning the 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup against a strong Mexico team. The two sides last met in the Group Stage of the last World Cup. The US have become a regular fixture on the international scene, without really receiving the kind of kudos they deserve. They have appeared at the last five World Cups, managing to get to the quarter-final stage in 2002. The stars and stripes have also performed consistently in the Gold Cup of late, winning three of the last four events, and are looking well on course to qualify for 2010. The game in the States, even without David Beckham, has come on strong since the days of Alexi Lalas and Eric Wynalda, and the US squad boasts a number of recognisable names and faces from European football. Still, a large portion of the squad come from the MLS, and combined they will be looking for a good showing in South Africa ahead of the 2009 Gold Cup which takes place on home soil in July.
The States have traditionally based their game on strong tactical discipline and work rate, but often lack gloss. Tim Howard marshals a back four where Captain Carlos Bocanegra and Standard Liege’s Oguchi Onyewu form an organised central defensive combination. The midfield contains willing runners such as Pablo Mastroeni, DaMarcus Beasley and Clint Dempsey, but there is no obvious creative spirit although Borussia Monchengladbach’s Michael Bradley has been attracting noises in Germany as a good goalscoring midfielder. Up-front the Americans rely on LA Galaxy’s Landon Donovan, who also puts in the hard yards without being a genuine goal-threat (although he is the national team’s record goalscorer).
One player who will be hoping to leave an impression on the world stage in the upcoming season is 19-year-old striker Jozy Altidore, on loan last season at Spanish side Xerez from Villarreal. The former New York Red Bulls frontman is seen as the bright hope for American soccer and already holds a number of records, including the youngest player to score in an MLS playoff match and the youngest American to score an international hat-trick. His transfer to Villarreal in 2008 commanded a sum of almost £7m – the highest fee ever received for an MLS player. Strong and quick with a ferocious strike, Altidore has scored six goals in 11 internationals and could provide the necessary firepower the States need to elevate themselves above being an organised, obdurate outfit.
Not that organised and obdurate doesn’t get the job done. Greece and South Korea have both proven recently that hard work, good tactics and a sprinkling of luck can be fruitful, and the US will not be an easy proposition for any opponent. All of which makes them ideal sparring partners as the Azzurri continue the build-up towards defending their world crown. Saturday’s 3-0 stroll over Northern Ireland contained a mixture of debutants and players “rewarded for a good season” by Marcello Lippi, but Wednesday night’s line-up was back to something approaching full strength in the chaotic 4-3 win over New Zealand, where the Kiwis led three times before Italy snatched it.
That performance contained enough defensive uncertainty to give Lippi cause for relative concern, even though goalkeeper Marco Amelia’s appalling show exaggerated the matter. On a more positive note, the striking combination of Alberto Gilardino and Fabio Quagliarella gave glimpses of a promising double-act, as the duo consistently linked up to good effect against the Kiwis. Giuseppe Rossi also started in an attacking trident, although he was hauled off at half-time and replaced by Andrea Pirlo. The plethora of forward players may cause Lippi his biggest selection dilemma, with how many to pick, and what combination of strikers he is best using. It looks as if Gilardino and Quagliarella’s form and understanding could make them first choice, but it remains to be seen whether Lippi will opt for a third forward or trequartista operating off the front two.
The squad essentially looks like Lippi’s strongest. The Tactician eventually decided against picking an experimental group, an option which has been favoured recently by teams taking part in the Confederations. Lippi obviously accepts the ability of the competition to act as a decent dress rehearsal for the World Cup proper, and the event will provide a good barometer as to how they are progressing, along with Brazil and European champions Spain. The Azzurri will be keen to remedy the 2-0 defeat dished out by the Samba Boys early this year in a friendly at the Emirates – a result which brought an abrupt end to their record-equalling 31-match unbeaten run. The Italians will get a chance to avenge that night when they face Brazil later on in the group, ahead of a potential match-up with the Spanish – widely recognised as the best national side in the world at the moment.
Before all that comes the game against the United States at the 50 000 capacity Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria – an encounter in itself to sufficiently test the Azzurri. The Americans are the type of side you could end up running into in the latter stages of a World Cup, and it will be intriguing to see if Italy possesses the necessary attacking guile to break down such a well drilled unit. La Nazionale will be expected to go a long way in this short competition, but for once perhaps, the intense scrutiny of the tifosi will be upon performance rather than the result.
June 6, 2009 – 19:50 – Arena Garibaldi, Pisa
Italy 3-0 Northern Ireland – Rossi 19, Foggia 52, Pellissier 73
June 10, 2009 – 19:50 – Super Stadium, Pretoria
Italy 4-3 New Zealand – Gilardino 33, 48, Iaquinta 68, 73; Smeltz 13, Killen 42, pen 57
June 15, 2009 – 20:30 – Loftus Versfeld Stadium, Pretoria
Italy vs. USA
June 18, 2009 – 20:30 – Coca-Cola Park, Johannesburg
Italy vs. Egypt
June 21, 2009 – 20:30 – Loftus Versfeld Stadium, Pretoria
Italy vs. Brazil
June 24-25, 2009 – both 20:30 – Vodacom Park, Bloemfontein & Coca-Cola Park, Johannesburg
June 28, 2009 – 15:00 – Royal Bafokeng Stadium, Rustenburg
Third place play-off
June 28, 2009 – 20:30 – Coca-Cola Park, Johannesburg