By Mike Collett
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Any doubts that Brazil are serious contenders for next year's World Cup were swept away by a majestic 3-0 victory over world champions Spain as they won the Confederations Cup in front of an ecstatic crowd at the Maracana Stadium on Sunday.
Inspired by Neymar and Fred in attack, David Luiz at the back and the indefatigable Paulinho thundering around the midfield, Brazil ended Spain's record run of 29 unbeaten competitive matches and brought back memories of their glory days with their fifth straight win of the tournament.
They began with a scrappy goal from Fred after some shocking Spanish defending in the second minute, went 2-0 ahead when Neymar lashed an unstoppable angled left-foot shot past Iker Casillas a minute before halftime, and wrapped up the match and the title when Fred plundered a third with another angled shot two minutes after the re-start.
A crucial stop from Luiz after 41 minutes was vital to the victory, however.
With Brazil 1-0 ahead and Spain beginning to finally make an impact, the world champions looked set to equalize with a Pedro shot that had beaten goalkeeper Julio Cesar.
But with the ball about to cross the line, Luiz sprinted from nowhere, stuck out a leg, and diverted it away for a memorable clearance.
"I owed that one to Julio Cesar after giving away the penalty against Uruguay," he told reporters.
"I managed to pay back the debt and help the team."
Three minutes later Neymar scored at the other end and Spain were on their way to their first competitive defeat for three years.
Spain, who have dominated the world scene for the past five years with two European titles and the World Cup, were swept aside.
They suffered their biggest competitive defeat since losing 3-0 to Wales in a European qualifier 37 years ago.
Sergio Ramos, who scored in the semi-final penalty shootout victory over Italy on Thursday, fired wide with a poor penalty after 54 minutes.
Worse was to follow when fellow defender Gerard Pique was sent off for a lunge on his new Barcelona team mate Neymar who again stole the show and was named Player of the Tournament.
Brazil went into the tournament with an indifferent set of results following the re-appointment of 2002 World Cup-winning coach Luiz Felipe Scolari last November, with just two wins, four draws and a defeat from his opening seven matches.
The debate had already began over whether he was the right man for the job but his team provided an endorsement with wins over Japan, Mexico, Italy, Uruguay and now Spain.
Sunday's performance was the best of them all, with Fred's second-minute goal lifting the crowd and Neymar's strike raising them higher still.
After Fred scored his second of the night and his fifth of the competition in the 47th minute, sheer joy descended on the Maracana as Brazil chalked up a third successive win in the competition that FIFA use as a test event for the following year's World Cup.
Although the performance was spellbinding, Neymar, among other players, stressed that Brazil still had a long way to go before securing an unprecedented sixth world title.
"Let's keep calm, let's keep our feet on the ground," he said. "We did very well and we are on the right track.
"We needed this time to train, we get to know each other and to work together and we are much better than we were."
Julio Cesar added: "There is a lot still to happen, there's a year to go until the World Cup, but I really wish that this was the World Cup. But we're delighted and it was an amazing experience."
One explanation for Spain's poor performance was their exhaustion after the grueling, energy-sapping semi-final win over Italy in the heat of Fortaleza on Thursday.
And while it is too early to make Brazil World Cup favorites it is also too early to write Spain off.
"We had a bad night," Casillas said. "But anyone thinking this team is finished should think again."
(Editing by Ian Ransom)