By Zac Lee Rigg, Goal.com
In 2009, a pesky United States team prevented a meeting of the world's two best international teams in the Confederations Cup final. Four years later, no such hiccups could separate Spain and Brazil.
Of course, the landscape has changed. Brazil slumped in the 2010 World Cup and 2011 Copa America, bowing out in the quarterfinals of each. After losing the Olympics, a competition Brazil has never won, in the 2012 final, the country recalled Luiz Felipe Scolari, the last coach to win a World Cup for the Seleção. His task: rebuild Brazil ahead of the first World Cup in Brazil since 1950, when Uruguay stunned the host in the final. Scolari's World Cup win in 2002 – Brazil's fifth, a world record – feels an awful long time ago.
Meanwhile, Spain went on to win the 2010 World Cup, its first. Including Euro triumphs on either side, La Roja have won three major tournaments in a row to join the ranks of all-time great national teams. This current Spain generation will hold up among the best in history.
Spain hasn't conceded in a competitive knockout match since 2009. In the latest, a 0-0 draw with Italy in the semifinals, Spain didn't miss a single of its seven penalties during the shootout in a show of ruthless composure.
Despite the defensive statistics, Spain looks moderately shaky at the back without Xabi Alonso in midfield. Nigeria and Italy both carved out ample chances on goal. Jordi Alba, who has scored two goals in the tournament, fails to clog up his hole on the left of defense quickly enough after forays up the field.
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Brazil's fullbacks Marcelo and Dani Alves also spend most of their time pushing forward and providing width, with Neymark and Hulk jutting infield toward goal. Perhaps the key player in the final will be Jesus Navas, Manchester City's new 25 million pound signing. The former Sevilla winger uses his hideous goatee to distract markers before skipping down the flank with unrivaled separation speed. Navas could start on the bench, so Pedro's movement in the wide areas should prove telling as well.
Also likely to sit the bench are forwards Fernando Torres and David Villa, who have eight goals between them in the tournament. The rest of the Spain squad has seven. But with Roberto Soldado and Cesc Fabregas returning from injury, Torres and his cup-leading five goals will sacrifice a spot, especially having struggled against Italy. (Villa didn't even make it off the bench in the semifinal, with Javi Martinez, a defensive midfielder or center back, playing out of position as a target striker instead.)
Neymar, three goals and two assists in four appearances, forms the brunt of the attack for Brazil, revamped in a sturdy, straightforward lineup by Scolari. Ahead of his major move to Barcelona this summer, the 21-year-old is excelling on the global stage for the first time. In the final he'll come up against up to nine future teammates.
With Neymar tucking in from the left, Fred leads the line. Though fans in the stadium bray for exciting Paris Saint-Germain prospect Lucas Moura, on the right Big Phil persists with Hulk, who struggles to meet the technical standards of his teammates.
Captain Thiago Silva, arguably the best defender in the world, marshals the back line.
Besides home-field advantage, Brazil can also lean on an extra day of rest, having beaten Uruguay in the semi on Wednesday. Additionally, Spain's Thursday semi went to penalties in extreme heat, with sweat staining Italian white jerseys sheer. Even though Vicente Del Bosque fielded a reserve lineup against Tahiti, fatigue could play a role.
In eight all-time meetings, Brazil has won four and draw two. The latest, a 0-0 tie, came in 1999. Brazil had played in the second of three consecutive World Cup finals the year prior. Spain didn't advance out of the group stages in 1998, the latest in a history full of, at that point, only disappointment.
Now Spain is the best team in the world. The international stage shifts quickly. After Sunday's game, it will morph further ahead of the 2014 World Cup.