Sunday, June 30, 2013

Can the flair of a resurgent Brazil unlock the tiki-taka midfield of a tired Spain?

This is not the Brazilian side of 1970 which had more stars than you could count in a desert sky. But it's young and energetic, offering glimpses of the natural Brazilian flair with the ball and boasting a striker with a messianic left foot in Neymar. If any team could try and beat the Spanish at their own game, or force the world champions out of their comfort zone, it is this Brazilian side coached by the wily old fox Luiz Felipe Scolari, who guided them to their last World Cup triumph in 2002 and has now been reappointed to prepare for Brazil's World Cup campaign at home next year.

Even if Brazil come up short in Sunday night's Confederations Cup final, it will be an opportunity for Scolari to test some tactics to unsettle the Spanish Armada of Xavi, Iniesta, Silva and the like in midfield. Everyone knows by now what the Spaniards do, but just haven't found a key to unlock their midfield, nor the training system to replicate their game, yet.

After all, it took many years and some fortuitous circumstances for Spain to come up with this tiki-taka brand of football that has made them concurrent winners of the World Cup and the European Cup. The system originated in Holland where young wards in clubs like Ajax were taught to play one-touch football, the idea being to get rid of the ball before you can be dispossessed of it, while maintaining ball possession with short passes between four, five or even six midfielders who form myriad patterns. The less time the opponents have with the ball, that much lower their opportunity to score.

The Dutch star Frank Rijkaard, who left Holland in a huff, introduced the system in the Spanish club Barcelona which he coached, and subsequently the Spanish national side which had a host of players from Barca. Rijkaard figured this system suited the Spaniards the best, as they are relatively short in stature compared to other Europeans, and therefore better equipped to play tiki-taka rather than the heavy tackling that used to characterise European football. How true this has proved, as Spain has remained unbeaten in competitive matches for three years now!

For Brazil to do any better than Spain's 29 previous opponents, their coach Scolari will have to work out how to leverage the speed and ball skill at his disposal to break up Spain's midfield formations. Others have tried this before and failed, but perhaps they did not quite have the youthfulness and flair of this Brazilian side. Besides, with the many lucrative exhibition matches the much-sought-after Spanish side has had to endure ever since their World Cup triumph, on top of the rigours of the Spanish league, it's just possible that the world champions will be vulnerable. That Brazil had an extra day of rest before this final, because they played their semi-final before Spain, may thus prove to be the tipping point. In any case, it will be nice to get a preview of the dream match-up of next year's World Cup in Brazil.

Oh, and there's a cricket match for a warm-up too, between world champions India, who are proving almost as hard to beat these days as Spain, and the hosts West Indies, who would love to recapture some of their old magic, just like the Brazilians. What a sporting Sunday!

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