Neymar and Balotelli face off in Confed Cup
SALVADOR, Brazil (AP) — Neymar and Mario Balotelli will be attracting most of the attention when Brazil and Italy play to decide the Group A winner at the Confederations Cup on Saturday.
The strikers are two of the tournament’s biggest stars and have played up to expectations so far, scoring two goals each in the first two matches.
Italy coach Cesare Prandelli said Friday it will be “nice to see them together” when the teams play in the northeastern city of Salvador.
Brazil and Italy have already secured a spot in the next round. The group winner will probably avoid Spain in the semifinals of the warm-up tournament, although both coaches are downplaying the significance of delaying a matchup against the World Cup champions.
There was a lot of hype surrounding Neymar and Balotelli ahead of the Confederations Cup, and they have been decisive for their national teams so far.
Balotelli scored a remarkable winner when Italy defeated Mexico 2-1 in its opener last Sunday, then converted a penalty kick that helped the Italians edge Japan 4-3 on Wednesday.
“Balotelli is a great player and he has been showing his qualities when plays for the Italian national team,” Brazil defender Daniel Alves said. “We will need to stay on alert the entire match to be able to defend well against him.”
Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari also loudly praised the Italian striker.
“He is a very good player, very good,” Scolari said. “We are preparing ourselves to play against him, we need our defenders to be on alert. He is extraordinary, I would love to have him playing with us here in Brazil.”
Neymar netted an outstanding goal from outside the area to open the scoring in Brazil’s 3-0 rout of Japan in the tournament’s opening match last Saturday, then had another remarkable strike to put the hosts on the board first in the 2-0 victory over Mexico on Wednesday.
The newly signed Barcelona forward also set up the second goal against Mexico after a nifty move past two Mexican defenders inside the area.
“The problem with Neymar, as with all great players, is that you can’t stop him just by marking well,” Prandelli said. “You need to do a good job limiting the spaces.”
Neymar said he became friends with Balotelli after Brazil played Italy to a 2-2 draw in a friendly in Geneva earlier this year. Brazilian media even reported that the players are planning to travel together in Brazil after the end of the competition.
“I’m a fan of Balotelli,” Neymar said recently. “He is one of the greatest in the world. I’ve always watched him play. He is a great person and I’ve always admired his moves.”
Brazil and Italy have won nine World Cup titles together. Two of the five Brazilian titles came in finals against the Italians — in 1970 and 1994. Friday marked 43 years of the 1970 World Cup title.
“It’s a classic in world football,” Brazil midfielder Hernanes said. “These are two of the most traditional national teams in the world. It’s always a match with a lot involved, with a lot of tradition.”
Brazil and Italy are tied with six points atop Group A, but the hosts are ahead on goal difference and can secure first place with a draw on Saturday. Italy has to beat Brazil to likely avoid Spain, which is leading Group B.
“We are not thinking about Spain at all,” Prandelli said. “If we have to play Spain, we will talk about it later.”
Although Neymar and Balotelli are set to start on Saturday, both teams will be without key players for the match at the Arena Fonte Nova.
Italy will miss star midfielder Andrea Pirlo, who is nursing a strained right leg muscle, adding to Prandelli’s problems in midfield. The coach also won’t be able to count on Daniele De Rossi, who is suspended after receiving two yellow cards.
Scolari will be without defensive midfielder Paulinho because of a left ankle sprain sustained in the match against Mexico. Doctors said the injury is not serious but the player will be left out so he can fully recover ahead of the semifinals.
Chelsea defender David Luiz sustained what the Brazilian federation called a “minor fracture” in his nose after being hit in the face against Mexico, but he is set to play on Saturday despite the injury.
Scolari said he may replace Daniel Alves and captain Thiago Silva because they already have received yellow cards, and there’s also a possibility the coach will rest playmaker Oscar, who has played a lot with Chelsea this season.
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