Sunday, June 28, 2009

Brazilian blowback ends American dream

FIFA Confederations Cup Final, Johannesburg
BRAZIL 3:2 USA
USA - Dempsey 10'
USA - Donovan 27'
BRA- Luis Fabiano 46'
BRA- Luis Fabiano 74'
BRA- Lucio 84'


Brazil retained the Confederations Cup after a real game of two halves at Ellis Park saw the United States take a shock 2-0 lead before succumbing to a Brazilian tempest in the second half to lose 3-2.

After dismissing the Spanish in the semi-final, the US were all set to replicate the Miracle of Bloemfontein with a two-goal lead, until Brazil remembered their status and blitzed them with three goals in the second half.

The US' solid 442 had frustrated the selecao enough to knock them out of their stride. Increasingly bereft of ideas and lacking any zest, the five-times World Cup winners had relied too much on individual magic to breach the white wall in front of them, which for the second game in a row was not giving way.

After less than ten minutes the Americans were ahead as Jonathan Spector's deep centre from the right wing curled into the path of Clint Dempsey who had pulled clear of the yellow shirts before tapping the ball past a despairing Julio Cesar into the far corner. America, on their way home after two miserable group defeats and with their coach on deathwatch, were instead heading towards the trophy itself.

The dream was surely on, a shock to be heard around the world. Brazil were struggling, like Spain had, to contend with the two lines of four, massed like robots in front of Tim Howard. After 27 minutes it got worse for them, as the US leapt into a two-nil lead. Four touches were all it took for the Americans to score after robbing Brazil of the ball close to their own box. Charlie Davies and Landon Donovan played a textbook wall-pass move which Donovan finished with real aplomb.

Half-time and the Americans deservedly led. Not only had they worked hard to frustrate Brazil and keep their shape come what may, Dempsey and Donovan had stayed upfield while their colleagues had toiled to keep the yellow army at bay, but the gamble had worked. Not only had they posed a threat on the break which produced two goals, but they had also kept the Brazilian full-backs from overlapping. The US were winning the tactical battle. The soccer world was topsy-turvy.

What a difference half time made. Brazil were unrecognisable from their first half shadows and cranked up the samba as soon as the second half kicked off, pulling a goal back within a minute. Luis Fabiano, the tournament's premier marksman, swiveled and fired home from the edge of the box in a split-second, a goal of international calibre.

The quick strike put wind in their sails. It was all Brazil now, pressing, fast, furious and inventive, everything they were not in the first half, the old selecao rejuvenated.

What magic must Dunga have worked in the dressing room. His players were defending higher up the field and their fullbacks, neutered previously, now overlapped with abandon. Six minutes later they were unlucky as a Kaka header crept over the line but was punched clear by Howard before the officials noticed. Could the US hold out? It looked unlikely, but just maybe their never-say-die and all-hands-to-the-pump team spirit might see out the clock.

Sixteen minutes from time disaster struck again. Kaka, a wandering assassin hungry for a kill, popped up on the left flank and steamed past Spector like an express train, before pulling back a deadly cross which Robinho hit goalward before Fabiano converted: 2-2 and Brazil clearly in the driving seat. The brave American challenge was wilting in the cool Johannesburg night.

Bradley did what he could, throwing on three fresh pairs of legs for his tiring troops but the MLS substitutes made no impact, a reminder of the need for 23 international class players in your squad.

Lucio rose highest to a cross five minutes from time to head Brazil into a deserved lead and an uncluttered path to the tournament. The goalscorer was in tears of joy. At the final whistle Dempsey cried in sorrow. So near, but still so far, the US had almost completed an incredible dream, but could have few complaints about the final score.

While they surprised the world by beating Spain and leading Brazil, it will still be a while before the US can mount a credible challenge for the big prize. Still, results like these will win them more respect worldwide and inspire more American kids to aim high in the Beautiful Game.

It was in Brazilian town of Belo Horizonte where the US shocked the football world by beating England in the 1950 World Cup Finals. Their future is still a beautiful horizon, but for now God is still a Brazilian.

In the earlier game, Spain grabbed third place by beating South Africa 3-2.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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