BRASILIA, BRAZIL – The Confederations Cup roils on with two marquee games as Mexico faces Italy in Rio de Janeiro ( live, Sunday, 3 p.m. ET ) and Spain battles Uruguay in Recife ( live, Sunday, 6 p.m. ET ). Both games are expected to be firefights, but for very different reasons.
Mexico-Italy is arguably the tenser of the two matches. The last time the Azzurri were here, they declined to take the tournament very seriously - and were punished, losing badly to Brazil and Egypt in 2009. Italy never recovered from the shock, and the lethargy they displayed became a hallmark of their disastrous 2010 World Cup campaign.
Italy are in transition, to be sure: Andrea Pirlo is nearing the end of a grand tenure and manager Cesare Prandelli is continuing to search for a way to inject both more width and speed into the side. His strikers, however, look nearly complete: Mario Balotelli and Stephan El Shaarawy are showing they can produce goals up top and if they can keep their heads under pressure, Italy's future will be right now.
Mexico, on the other hand, are in dire straits. They have slumped badly in World Cup qualifying and look nothing like the supposed kings of CONCACAF. Jose Manuel "Chepo" de la Torre is under heavy pressure to get this team going. Should de la Torre fail to get El Tri firing, he may not make last the month: chants for his ouster have been echoing around Mexico and there is a sense that if El Tri are to right the ship, they must do it here in Brazil.
To do that, de la Torre must find a goal-scorer. Too much has been heaped on Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez's shoulders, and while Mexico has the core of their Olympic gold-medal winning team here, with Jesus Corona, Giovani dos Santos and Carlos Salcido all getting the run out. One major absence, however is Oribe Peralta: he injured a thigh muscle and is out.
This is shaping up as a battle of stamina versus style. Italy no longer exhibits the locked-door, safety-first game of yore as Prandelli has deployed a 3-5-2 and pressed opponents high up the pitch. Mexico don't have the grace or the experience of the Italians - and to be fair, they don't get it slogging away in CONCACAF against the likes of Barbados - but their patient, short passing game in a 4-2-3-1 has worked against sides that chose to play them straight up. Intriguingly, Mexico struggles against sides that sit deep and wait - meaning that if Italy revert to their old style, El Tri could be in for a long night.
This match is also tinged with off-field controversy: Rio's Maracana Stadium is obviously not done, with major construction work taking place right up until kickoff. The stadium's unfinished status has been a sore point for both the local organizers and FIFA, who have been repeatedly forced to insist all is well in the face of evidence to the contrary.
Our other game of the day, Spain-Uruguay at the new Arena Pernambuco, is shaping up as a battle of forwards.
Uruguay's Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez are two of the world's best - but not when they are playing together. Cavani's exploits at the club level have yet to match those with the national team alongside Suarez. This tournament has both men in the shop window as well; Suarez is openly agitating for a move away from Liverpool while Cavani is expected to land in London or Madrid by this tournament's end.
Spain also have issues up top: they got a rude shock Saturday with reports that Chelsea are preparing to jettison Juan Mata. The forward claims to know nothing about the move, but with the arrival of Jose Mourinho at Stamford Bridge, it is clear wholesale changes are in the offing. Fernando Torres is another man who may be on his way out of London, and this means both are under some pressure to show their value.
But Spain are also worn out. So good for so long, the national team's exertions have clearly impacted their domestic teams, with both Barcelona and Real Madrid slumping in the Champions League as a result. That means Vicente del Bosque has a challenge: does he push his team to win the one major title they have never won - or does he accept a graceful exit?
Head to head, the Spanish are clearly the better passers and slicker players. Formations go out the window with Spain (del Bosque memorably deployed a 4-6-0 in one game at the Euros) because they can succeed in pretty much any layout. But it is foolhardy to count out the South American champions. Oscar Washington Tabarez, coaching's mad scientist, is unlikely to show Spain a formation he's fielded before - expect a 4-4-1-1 with Cavani again playing out of position, to perhaps his detriment. And expect this game to be a far more physical contest as well: Uruguay will look to unsettle Spain's midfield early and often.