Yesterday, the final World Cup 2014 roster for the Spanish National Football Team was released on the team's official webpage. The 23 man squad includes 17 who participated on the winning World Cup 2010 team. Coach Vicente del Bosque's ultimate selections were:
Goalkeepers: Iker Casillas (Real Madrid), Pepe Reina (Napoli), and David de Gea (Manchester United); defenders: Cesar Azpilicueta (Chelsea), Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid), Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba (Barcelona), Javi Martinez (Bayern Munich), Raul Albiol (Napoli), and Juanfran Torres (Atletico Madrid); midfielders: Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and Cesc Fabregas (all Barcelona), Xabi Alonso (Real Madrid), Santi Cazorla (Arsenal), David Silva (Manchester City), Koke (Atletico Madrid), and Juan Mata (Manchester United); and strikers: Pedro Rodriguez (Barcelona), Fernando Torres (Chelsea), David Villa and Diego Costa (Atletico Madrid).
The starting eleven, which began to solidify as the tune up match against Bolivia concluded seems to be: Captain Casillas in goal, Ramos and Pique at center backs, with Azpilicueta on the right side and Jordi Alba on the left completing the defense. In midfield, Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso as defensive mids will complement a movable feast of creative attacking choices that will include Iniesta, Xavi, Pedro, Torres, Villa, Fabregas, Silva, and Cazorla, who will be fitted together per game and opponent as is del Bosque's want.
Over three weeks ago Brazil's coach, Luis Felipe Scolari, decided to end all speculation and lobbying by naming his 23-man squad well ahead of tomorrow's deadline. He chose the following players:
Goalkeepers: Julio Cesar (Toronto FC), Jefferson (Botafogo), and Victor (Atletico Mineiro); defenders: Dani Alves (Barcelona), Maicon (Roma), Marcelo (Real Madrid), Maxwell and Thiago Silva (PSG), David Luiz (Chelsea), Dante (Bayern Munich), and Henrique (Napoli);midfielders: Luiz Gustavo (Wolfsburg), Hernanes (Inter Milan), Paulinho (Tottenham), Ramires, Willian, and Oscar (Chelsea), and Fernandinho (Manchester City); and strikers: Hulk (Zenit), Neymar (Barcelona), Fred (Fluminense), Jo (Atletico Mineiro), Bernard (Shakhtar).
The starting eleven has been tinkered with little over the past several months but still has a player or two that may change depending upon the opponent and situation during the cup. The June 3rd tune up against Panama should give a clear indication of the coach's thinking. Scolari has so far favored: Cesar in goal, Alves at right wingback and Marcelo on the left, Silva and Luiz as center backs, Gustavo, Oscar and Paulinho in midfield and Neymar, Hulk and Fred as strikers.
If these two teams were to meet in the finals we would have a titanic clash of both similar and different proportions to the one we had in the Confederations Cup Final just last summer. The casts--assuming all are healthy and there are minimal needed substituions--would be almost identical, and the pressures upon both squads comparably immense if a bit stronger on the hosts side. But the outcome may well be as unexpected as it was the last time they met or the last time a World Cup final was played at the Maracana. Let's break down the comparisons.
If we look at the keepers, Casillas takes the nod, he is still the best keeper in the world, despite both his blunder in the Champions League, and his lack of playing time in La Liga. But Cesar was once the best in the world and is intent on a good showing on home soil. At defense Brazil have the advantage. Spain have the all-world and resurgent hero-scorer Ramos and his supporting cast is good, but Silva and Luis are as good as it gets in central defense. Alves and Marcelo are matches for Alba and Azpilicueta and these four will mostly balance each other out on both sides of the field with the Brazilians taking the nod on the offensive side.
In midfield, the defensive quartet of Paulinho and Gustavo on one side and Busquets and Alonso on the other might seem an even exchange, but with Oscar as the only mid trying to create from the middle against the likes of Iniesta, Xavi and whomever del Bosque adds, it is simply asking too much of the young Brazilian. Spain takes the nod here too.
When we compare attacking prowess, Neymar is the top star, but he is going against a defense that will be keying on him as the only real standalone scoring threat the way the Iberians will key in on Oscar as the only creative Brazilian midfielder. Not too hard a task. On the Brazilian side Hulk and Fred are not nimble enough to handle one-on-ones well and Fred's 90 seconds-in, fortunate, opportunistic opening goal in the Confederation cup may not materialize again. It would seem a stalemate on offense so far, but with a decided slant to Brazil given what Neymar alone, and Alves and Marcelo coming up, offer on attack.
Spain mostly need to guard against an inspired Neymar on the left side of attack, and avoid the type of Arbeloa blunder that left the Brazilian open for the killer 44th minute second goal in the Confederations Cup Final. Ramos may be played as the right fullback to support Azpilicueta should Neymar get by him. Meanwhile, with the slow/fast tiki-taka rhythmic build up Spain prefers on offense, and their reliance on the ball handling of Iniesta, also on the left, Brazil will have time to defend and a side to cheat towards. Thus, del Bosque will have to mix things up to find at least three other ways in.
First, he must look to explore the far right side with Pedro, releasing his speed as the Brazilian focus continues on the other side. Second, he will have to ask his midfielders to hook up with Torres, Silva, Fabregas, or Villa, in a much earlier give-and-go, the way Barcelona does with Messi, a good ways from goal. This will force Silva and Luis out and open space behind them. Third, he has to exploit the forward progress of the Brazilian wingbacks for space behind them on a counterattack.
Scolari will attempt to do the same countering down the right side, what with Alba's penchant for forward progress. He will look to keep Fred deeply into the Spanish defense in hopes of keeping Ramos occupied in his position and to force the slower Pique to take the last ditch, recuperating role. Hulk and Neymar can then move in for the kill from both sides. With Ramos as the major defensive obstacle, Scolari will also look to isolate the fullback by playing him out of position and attacking in either the space he leaves or on the side opposite where he has been drawn.
These are tough tactics to implement for a full 90 minutes and which side breaks down in their respective discipline will go a long way toward determining who gets that needed break. The match clincher will be who breaks that balance first or best and here Neymar takes the nod for Brazil. If he is in inspirational form he will likely win the game on his own, by some creative spark. Ironically, despite the lack of other creative players, the nod on offense goes to Brazil.
So where does that leave us? I think Spain is the better team on paper, but they may not be able to play much beyond their true potential in South America. Brazil, on the other hand, is the one most likely to play beyond their roster's already high-level to achieve a breakthrough. So, why do I still think Spain will win in a fairly officiated game? Because player for player, position by position, the Iberians are overall smaller but better in more match-ups with the Brazilians. Spain is better on defense and midfield and should thus stop most Brazilian attacks and build more scoring chances for themselves. So who would win the cup between them? Spain will win if physicality is reduced to fair challenges since Brazil is the more physical side. But if the officials are willing to allow roughhousing, Brazil will find a way to their sixth cup win.