COMMENTARY | Neymar and Mario Balotelli illuminate a stadium in Salvador, Bahia on Saturday. Brazil takes on Italy in their final group stage match of the Confederations Cup, and the loser likely lands a semifinal date with Spain. To this point, Brazil has appeared to be a better side in the competition than Italy, but the allure of this match is as much in watching the individual talents of Neymar and Balotelli as it is about studying the growth of Brazil and Italy.
The elder of the two goal scoring prodigies, Balotelli is determined to become Italy's all-time top scorer. Earlier in the week, the 22-year-old scored his 10th goal in 24 appearances for the Azzurri, so he is merely 25 goals shy of the record. Conceivably, he will shatter that mark and having a black Italian as the all-time scorer would make a massive social statement supporting a diverse Italy.
This week, 21-year-old Neymar made his own social statement by publicly supporting the protests occurring throughout Brazil. The volume of protesters in the streets--300,000 people turned up in Rio de Janeiro on Thursday--has stained the coverage of the brilliant play on the pitch. However, Neymar's decision to comment on the protests served to further directly link the strikes to the competition.
Back on the pitch, Balotelli and Neymar are two of the most exciting players on the planet and two of the premier personalities in the sport.
When Andrea Pirlo floats a 40-yard pass and Balotelli kills the ball with a talented touch, hearts skip a beat. When Neymar splits defenders with a stylish flick that no one imagined possible, he makes the audience chuckle in delight. Once No. 9 for Italy comes into view, eyeballs unconsciously gravitate toward the towering and powerful figure. When No. 10 for Brazil is on the ball, the professional samba dancers stop to take notes on new steps.
During the early stages of the 2013 Confederations Cup, Balotelli and Neymar have exceeded the hype, and Saturday offers a look at both on the same pitch. Balotelli and Neymar are joint top scorers for the Confederations Cup along with Brazilian substitute striker Jo--assuming the 16 goals scored against Tahiti are excluded, of course.
In his young Brazil career, Neymar already has 22 goals in 36 appearances for the selecao. As would be expected, Brazil's all-time scoring record is significantly higher than Italy's. Pele scored a jaw dropping 77 goals in 92 matches. Neymar's 0.61 scoring rate trumps Balotelli's 0.41 mark, but Pele's 0.84 goals per game help explain why he is central to every conversation regarding the greatest player of all time.
With both teams already advancing to the semifinals, Italy may use the occasion to try a new lineup. Against Japan, Cesare Prandelli made an important switch half an hour into the match. He inserted Sebastian Giovinco into the side and provided Italy with a third attacker alongside Balotelli and Emanuele Giaccherini.
Based on the performance, Giovinco should get the start in Salvador, and fellow Juventus teammate Claudio Marchisio also anticipates a return to the starting 11 due to a Daniele De Rossi suspension.
For Brazil, Luiz Felipe Scolari will likely start the same 11 players who started the first two matches of the tournament. Fred and Oscar were among several Brazilians who underperformed against Mexico, but Neymar's brilliance provided Brazil two spectacular goals and a 2-0 victory.
Whenever two heavyweights the likes of Brazil and Italy get together, the measuring sticks appear to make statements about team progress. However, the true test for both teams will come in the semifinals and beyond. On Saturday, Brazil and Italy take a back seat to the excitement of Balotelli and Neymar.
Shahan Ahmed is a Yahoo! Contributor in Sports. He is Director of European Football and Chief Editor for AccuScore, and he is providing Yahoo! regular 2013 Confederations Cup coverage for the duration of the tournament. You can interact with Shahan on Twitter @ShahanLA
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