From his status as the winner of the inaugural Best FIFA Men’s Player award to a hat-trick of man-of-the-match performances and a huge mural on the side of a building in Kazan, it is hard to escape the impression that Confederations Cup organisers feel there is a giant, Cristiano Ronaldo-shaped hole in Sunday’s final.
Ronaldo looked on as Claudio Bravo saved all three Portugal penalties to hand Copa America holders Chile a shoot-out victory in the semi-final.
Alexis Sanchez netted from 12 yards and the Arsenal forward – at least he is for now – will lead La Roja’s charge for a third title in as many years, a spell that already marks a defining period in the country’s footballing history.
Four-time and reigning world champions Germany boast plenty of those but the performances of Joachim Low’s youthful squad over the past two weeks suggest they could be on the cusp of another.
Low named a roster that stood as the antithesis to Ronaldo’s superstar status, with Manuel Neuer, Toni Kroos, Mesut Ozil and Thomas Muller among those prescribed rest and recuperation.
There could be little argument when the 57-year-old told a pre-final news conference in St Petersburg that his players had surpassed expectations.
Joshua Kimmich, equally adept at full-back, wing-back or on the right of a back three, is a cap centurion in waiting, while Leon Goretzka’s purring dominance from midfield has helped him to plunder three goals and sit as joint-top scorer at the competition alongside RB Leipzig striker Timo Werner.
— Germany (@DFB_Team_EN) July 1, 2017
Leading the side, with his growth into the temporary captaincy roundly praised, is Paris Saint-Germain winger Julian Draxler.
Winger is a somewhat reductive description of what Draxler has brought to Die Mannschaft in Russia. Starting nominally on the left of a front three, he has roved liberally across the forward and midfield positions, the side’s creative fulcrum in Ozil’s absence.
“Given the fact I’m the one that already has the highest number of caps it was the case that I tried to assume a lot of responsibility,” Draxler said at Krestovsky Stadium on Sunday.
“I have a different role to last year, when I was playing outside left. The coach certainly has put his trust in me and I’m trying to help wherever I can.”
The 23-year-old, long hailed as a future great but waylaid by engineering moves away from Schalke and Wolfsburg, looked like a man realising his phenomenal potential as he dazzled in the group-stage wins over Australia and Cameroon.
Against Mexico, he tried to flick and trick his way out of an underwhelming showing with limited success. Draxler must guard against similarly boxing himself in against Chile, who held Germany to a 1-1 group-stage draw, or questions over his temperament will linger.
Sanchez’s status as a big-game performer has been cemented by a career that has taken in Serie A, LaLiga and the Premier League. However, with the lingering talk over his future poised to bubble over into a full-blow saga when this tournament ends, will he be completely focused on the task at hand? Draxler would probably sympathise.
¡Estamos listos! Última práctica para la gran final de la #ConfedCup
— Selección Chilena (@LaRoja) July 1, 2017
If either of Chile or Germany’s defences are able to keep these men away from influencing the destination of the Confederations Cup, they will have done a formidable job.
Sanchez’s only goal so far, which made him Chile’s all-time record scorer, came against Low’s men in Kazan but his bustling, all-action style means he is unquestionably La Roja’s driving force.
An attempted 21 dribbles in the competition underline how opponents rarely enjoy a moments’ rest against the 28-year-old, while Draxler has embarked on 18 of his own and created an incredible 12 chances for team-mates.
Star quality in the final is not exclusively the preserve of Sanchez and Draxler but, for the kind of game-breaking, show-stealing intervention many hoped to see Ronaldo produce this weekend, it would be wise not to look too much further in this finely balanced clash.
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