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Paulinho shines as Brazil defeat Uruguay, move into Confederations Cup final

Jun 26, 2013, 5:16 PM EDT

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What was supposed to be a dry run for next year’s World Cup has slowly become a coming out party for an international giant who’d come into the Confederations Cup with more questions than renown. But after tonight’s 2-1 victory over Uruguay, where an 86th minute winner from Paulinho sank the South American champions, Brazil have done all anybody would have hoped for at the beginning of the tournament. Perfect through games against Japan, Mexico, Italy and Uruguay, the 22nd-ranked Selecao will face the winner of tomorrow’s Spain-Italy match in Sunday’s final having already reaffirmed their place among the elites of the world’s game.

Brazil opened the scoring just before halftime, with a sellout crowd in Belo Horizonte erupting when Fred put home the rebound of a Neymar shot, sending the home side into half time up 1-0. Uruguay equalized through Edinson Cavani three minutes into the second, putting the match on a course for extra time, but off a late corner kick delivered by Neymar, Paulinho sent Brazil into the final.

It was a standout match for the Corinthians midfielder, linked with a move to Tottenham Hotspur or Chelsea. A superb long ball sent over the defense from the center circle sprung Neymar ahead of the first goal, and elevating for an eventually uncontested header near full time, Paulinho played the most important part in both of Brazil’s goals. In the process, he continued a rise that’s mirrored his team, both bringing some much deserved attention to themselves with standout Confederations Cup runs.

The teams set up as expected, with Brazil’s attacking three of Neymar, Fred, and Hulk relying on the playmaking of Oscar to break through a Uruguayan 4-3-3 that started their back seven at the top of their arc. Óscar Tabarez choice of Luis Suárez, Diego Forlán, and Edinson Cavani up top saw Uruguay revert to their successful World Cup formula, one that would rely on the trio’s supreme skill in limited chances to balance out what was sure to be a severe possession deficit.

Through most of the first half, Tabarez’s tactics worked. Brazil monopolized the ball but saw the worse of chances, with a Forlán penalty kick saved by former Inter Milan teammate Julio Cesar keeping the match scoreless after 13 minutes. When another Forlán chance from 23 yards out saw his half-volley sail just outside the upper-left hand corner, Uruguay’s plan seemed to be working.

But in the 41st minute, Brazil turned the tables, a long ball from Paulinho finding Neymar streaking between Maxi Pereira and Diego Lugano in Uruugay’s back four. Dropping his pass with the position of a Brazilian Pirlo, the Tottenham target sent Neymar in on Fernando Muslera, with only a decisive read from the Uruguayan keeper preventing another Neymar goal. The rebound, however, fell to the middle of the box, where a hop and a scissor kick from Fred saw a shot go off his shin and inside the right post, giving Brazil a 1-0 lead.

The score highlighted the risk of Tabarez’s approach, but given how well the Celeste had executed their plan, it was easy to feel the visitors were hard done. With a back three that laid off Brazil’s defense, Uruguay begged the Selecao to bring the game to them. And for 40 minutes, they couldn’t, the Brazilians seemingly rekindling the uncertainties they carried into the tournament. Even though they went into halftime up one, the direct nature of their goal left you wondering the extent to which Brazil’s capable of coping with a plan like Uruguay’s.

Those musings were amplified three minutes into the second when a series of failed clearances at the edge of the Brazilian era ended with the ball at Cavani’s feet, his left-footed roller just inside the far left corner from 16 yards out equalizing for the Uruguayans. Though it was a softly hit shot, the movements Cesar was making to keep up with the series of deflections left him off guard, his shift to his left to square up for Cavani’s shot coming too late to save the Celeste’s opening goal.

With the score even, the match initially resumed the first half’s tenor, Brazil dictating play but failing to stress Fernando Muslera. Chances for Lugano and Cavani broke up spells of Brazilian control, the home side racking up advantages in shots that had little chance of deciding the game. As time built, and as Luiz Felipe Scolar tweaked his team, brining on Bernard and Hernanes for Hulk and Oscar, extra time not only seemed invited but inevitable. There was a curiosity in the growing tension of the Belo Horizonte crowd, a wonder of where the atmosphere would stand after 120 minutes.

That curiosity ended in the 86th minute, with the man who was so crucial to Brazil’s opening goal getting his name on the scoresheet. Off one of the slew of late corners they’d earned from their dominance of play, Brazil Neymar loft a ball for the far post from the left flank. There Paulinho was allowed to rise uncontested, putting his header just below the crossbar to give Brazil a place in the final.

In a match the rekindled doubts, the winner proved vindication – proof the still building team was capable of pushing through a experienced, resilient side. In their first full tournament since 2011’s Copa America, Brazil came into the Confederation Cup an untested team, and given the still-building reputation of the competition, it was unclear to what extent they’d be pushed this month. But like the tournament itself, Brazil has proved to be more than expected, with Japan, Mexico, Italy and Uruguay providing a validating gauntlet for Scolari’s melding team.

The next test for that group is likely to be the ultimate one. Though Spain still have to navigate Italy in tomorrow’s semifinal, the world is anticipating the meeting they didn’t get four years ago. On Sunday, Brazil should get their crack at the world champions.