When the Confederations Cup field was finalized earlier this year, the eight-team field seemed to have two tiers, more or less.
On one side, you had lesser national teams like Australia, Cameroon, New Zealand and host Russia. On the other side lay traditional giants or peaking powers like Germany, Portugal, Mexico and Chile.
The upper tier held sway and all four of those teams reached the knockout stages, as expected. As for which will raise the trophy, that’s anyone’s guess.
Despite advancing, none of the four semifinalists have done so in overly convincing fashion, which provides a tantalizing element of uncertainty but also begs the question: Why hasn’t anyone announced themselves as a favorite?
Favorites aren’t a prerequisite for international tournaments, but their absence is something atypical, even if that favorite doesn’t actually go on to win. Germany entered the 2014 World Cup among the three or four favorites and only got better as the tournament went on. France was expected to ride the wave of its home crowd to a European title last summer, and very nearly did.
Perhaps it’s really a question of urgency. The Confederations Cup is a second-tier international tournament, and it acts as a litmus test of sorts for countries’ contemporaneity and aspirations. They’re always in it for different reasons.
The Germans are in it to develop their absurd depth of talent, and they’re certainly the biggest name remaining. Manager Joachim Löw opted to give most of the core players from the 2014 world champions the summer off in favor of handing opportunities to young prospects who could potentially play big roles next year at the World Cup.
As one would expect, there have been mental lapses and shaky play with all the relative inexperience on the pitch, so it says something that Germany still managed to win Group B with the second-best goal differential of any team.
That includes Chile, the two-time defending Copa America champions who are trying to add a Confederations Cup title to their growing trophy case. Alexis Sanchez has been resplendent, but the Chileans seem to be overly reliant on the dynamite attacker, not unlike the club he plays for.
They also didn’t look convincing against Australia, although they rested some starters and their opponent tried to muck up the game with admittedly borderline physical play. Still, Chile employs an all-out pressing style that may finally be wearing on the players, seeing as this is their fourth consecutive summer of knockout-stage tournament football during the period when other players are usually recovering from lengthy club seasons.
The tactics may work against Portugal, which is more willing to skirt possession for chances to counter. It’s part of the strategy that netted the Portuguese their first major international title at last year’s European Championship, but it’s also one that leaves them vulnerable to be picked off in most instances.
They snuck into the knockout stages at the Euros as the second-to-last entrant due to tiebreakers, and they only won once in regulation all tournament. This summer’s results have been better with two wins and a draw against Mexico, which had to score in stoppage time just to earn the result.
The Portuguese are probably the closest thing to a favorite left in Russia, they’ve been remarkably consistent the past couple years, and they unquestionably have the best player in Cristiano Ronaldo. They just have to make sure their tightrope-walking tactics don’t lead to their downfall.
Then again, at least Portugal knows what to make of itself. Mexico has a potentially historic collection of talent in its national program, but manager Juan Carlos Osorio keeps fiddling with formations and lineups at the Confederations Cup. The opening draw against Portugal has been El Tri’s best performance, as they were fortunate to edge New Zealand and Russia by twin 2-1 scores.
Mexico has shown a knack for resilience, having fallen behind in all three matches and come back to earn points each time. That’s not insignificant, but it’s also a peculiar habit for a team that, when firing on all cylinders, is a real threat to win the Confederations Cup for the second time in its history.
Will Mexico win it? Will it be one of the other three teams?
The question will be answered soon enough. For now, it’s being answered with wobbly assuredness no matter who’s being backed.
More soccer coverage from FC Yahoo:
• Russian national team has some work to do before World Cup
• Germany, Chile advance at Confed Cup but not without incident
• Mexico fortunate to reach semifinals against host nation