Confederations Cup comes alive

22 June 2009

It was a weekend of footballing drama as the group phase of the 2009 Confederations Cup drew to a close, with Brazil taking world champions Italy apart and the USA shocking Egypt to progress to the tournament’s semifinals, while New Zealand held off Iraq to enable hosts South Africa to clinch a place in the final four.

South Africa’s qualification for the semi-finals didn’t come via a glorious upset of world number one Spain, but thanks to New Zealand’s draw with Iraq.

Most expected that South Africa would need to shock a Spanish team that has become something of a juggernaut to reach the next round. Heading into the contest, Spain had won a world-record equalling 14 matches in succession. They were also one draw or win short of tying Brazil for the most successive matches without defeat, at 35.

The miracle didn’t happen in Bloemfontain as Spain shut out South Africa 2-0. A minor miracle happened in Johanneburg, however, where New Zealand – thrashed 5-0 by Spain and beaten 2-0 by South Africa previously – held Iraq to a goalless draw to ensure Bafana progressed despite suffering a defeat.

Miraculous result

A miraculous result occurred on Sunday evening when the USA – previously beaten 3-1 by Italy and 3-0 by Brazil – shocked what had been a very impressive Egypt until then by three goals to nil. The American victory, coupled with Brazil’s 3-0 dismantling of Italy, paved the way for an astonishing progression into the semi-finals for the Americans, along with the unbeaten Brazilians.

Considering that they had entered their final game on the back of successive defeats and a goal difference of minus-five, it was the most unlikely of outcomes.

Commenting on South Africa’s progression, Bafana Bafana coach Joel Santana said after the loss to Spain: “Our performance today was not so good, but we qualified. I am very happy today, happy for the country and happy for the players.”

‘It’s important’

He continued: “It’s important that South Africa go to the semi-finals … We have four points, and Iraq have two. Iraq never came here to play or win, but we won and we are in the semi-finals.”

Bafana Bafana’s reward for making it to the final four is a showdown with Brazil, with the USA and Spain meeting in the other semi-final.

Brazil and Spain, who both went three of three to top their groups, are the obvious favourites to advance to the title game, but South Africa can at least take heart from the trouble caused the Brazilians by Egypt when the African champions pushed the five-time World Cup winners all the way before succumbing 4-3 after Kaka slotted a last-minute penalty.

‘A very difficult match’

“It would be good to face Brazil,” said Santana, “because this will be a good experience for my players. It is a very difficult match, but it will be good for our preparations for the World Cup.”

Despite being backed by a vocal crowd in Bloemfontein on Saturday night, Bafana Bafana found the class of Spain too much to overcome. The Europeans champions recorded a world record fifteenth win in succession under Vicente de Bosque, whose personal record improved to 14 victories on the trot since becoming coach. In that time, Spain have scored 34 goals and, amazingly, conceded only two!

Spanish intentions were made clear early on when Albert Riera blasted a blistering free kick from 35 yards. It was headed for the top corner before Itumeleng Khune, in the South African goal, sent the powerful strike flying wide.

Yellow card

With Spain dominating the early possession, midfielder Macbeth Sibaya made a rash challenge on Cesc Fabregas and was yellow carded in the fifth minute. It means he is ruled out of the semi-final against Brazil.

South Africa finally managed to claw their way back into the game, but the staunch Spanish defence kept goalkeeper Pepe Reina from being exposed to any shots.

After half an hour, striker Fernando Torres almost put Spain in front when he tried to chip Khune after finding some space behind the Bafana Bafana defence. The netminder, however, managed to get an arm to the ball and Matthew Booth, who excelled against the Liverpool star, cleared.

Good opportunities

South Africa then created two good opportunities, but failed to make them count. Steven Pienaar, who enjoyed another good outing against top class opposition in midfield, set Bernard Parker up for a shot, but he fired over the top of the goals.

Pienaar and Parker then combined to set up Teko Modise for a crack from the edge of the box, but he didn’t make good contact and his shot was weak.

Just before the break, Torres found some space down the right flank and crossed for his strike partner David Villa. The Valencia man couldn’t keep his shot down and the teams entered the break level at 0-0.

Spain showed plenty of urgency early on in the second half. First Xavi fired narrowly wide from a free kick and then, six minutes in, Fabregas won a penalty when SA skipper Aaron Mokoena brought him down.

Penalty saved

Villa stepped up to take the kick, but Khune denied him, saving to his left before stopping a follow-up by Torres.

A minute later, Villa made amends for his miss. Riera found him with a cross and – with either a handball or superb chest control – the striker brought the ball neatly down to the ground before sliding it inside the right hand post to give Spain the lead.

After an hour, Del Bosque replaced both Torres and Villa, switching to a single striker up front.

Second goal

Twelve minutes later, the European champions doubled their lead. A low free kick by Xavi found its way to substitute Llorente, who steered the ball past Khune to put Spain 2-0 ahead.

Pienaar just missed setting up Parker after finding some space, and the striker forced a save from Reina with a long distance shot, but the Spanish defence held firm and they took the win.

Thankfully, for South Africa, they weren’t penalised for the loss, thanks to New Zealand’s surprise draw against Iraq.

Spain and the USA meet in the first semi-final in Bloemfontein on Wednesday on Wednesday, while South Africa and Brazil do battle in Johannesburg on Thursday.

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