With the start of the FIFA World Cup 2014 less than a week away I take a look at each group: the teams, the key players and matches, and offer my predictions. Here I look at Group B - the first ‘group of death’ - containing Spain, Netherlands, Chile and Australia.
Holders Spain are the team many casual observers say they can’t see past, but as the World Cup has got closer faith in Vincente del Bosque’s side retaining their title has slipped with many bookies putting them as fourth favourites.
Certainly the air of invincibility about the Spanish has vanished in the past 12 months, with their drubbing at the hands of Brazil in the Confederations Cup final last summer an assumed sign of deterioration. The excuses of exhaustion then will hardly have gone away as the bulk of this squad are about to enter their third international tournament in as many years. Add to that the hint of decline about Barcelona this season and it suggests a worrying trend for supporters of ‘La Roja’.
However you don’t win three consecutive major championships without having a squad packed with world class talent, and the Spain squad possesses experienced champions such as Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Ramos and Iker Casillas, mixed with a new generation of upstarts like Koke, Juanfran and Diego Costa adding fresh impetus from La Liga champions Atletico Madrid.
It will be tough for Spain to win again because retaining World Cups is an exception; done twice only in the history of the game and not since Brazil retained their crown in 1962.
Yet if there is a squad with the right mix of know-how, experience and talent to achieve what would be a remarkable feat in the modern game, then it would have to be this Spanish generation - arguably the finest international team in the game’s history.
Key player: Andres Iniesta
The hero of the 2010 final will once again hold most of the keys if Spain are to unlock another triumph.
The 30-year-old La Masia graduate has been almost peerless in the quality of his play at both club and international level over the past five or six years, and after a disappointing and trophyless season at the Nou Camp Iniesta will be looking to finish the season on a high.
His chemistry with Xavi will always be pivotal for the success of ‘tika-taka’ and in a tournament where I expect cautious, organised, defensive play to be the norm Iniesta’s skill, balance, and ability to conjure something out of tight spaces could be what is required to prise open opponents and create space for the likes of Diego Costa
World Cup best
Odds: 13-2 (Ladbrokes)
As they usually do Netherlands breezed through qualification with embarrassing ease, winning nine of their ten games, hitting 34 goals and conceding just five in doing so. The stats make for optimistic reading, but in truth it is unlikely the Dutch will repeat their appearance in the final in South Africa four years ago, nevermind end their long wait for World Cup success.
Going forward you would expect Holland to prove too strong in the group stage, with Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar boasting 100 international goals between them. However, when attacks break down the Dutch could well be left exposed at the back.
Much of the responsibility for protecting an inexperienced backline will lie with AC Milan’s Nigel de Jong, but a lack of depth in this position means if de Jong suffers injury or, more likely, suspension it will look grim.
The loss of Roma’s Kevin Strootman is substantial as they will miss his energy and drive in the middle of the pitch. Louis Van Gaal will be hoping Wesley Sneijder can conjure some of the magic that once made him the world’s best playmaker, but you feel much of the hope for Dutch fans rests at the quick feet of Arjen Robben.
Holland should be too strong not to qualify for the knockout stage, but with the likelihood of facing hosts Brazil in the round of 16 it may not be an extended stay in South America for the Dutch.
Key player: Arjen Robben
Bayern Munich’s Robben has been one of the best attacking players in Europe for the best part of a decade and there are few players as unstoppable and irresistible to watch with ball at feet and space to run into.
In a tournament where I expect teams to sit deep and look to counter-attack, players who can shift from defence to attack as quickly as Robben can could be the star turns.
With concerns about the form and fitness of Robin van Persie (despite scoring 11 goals in qualification) and Wesley Sneijder not the player he once was, Robben will carry the biggest threat for Holland.
World Cup best
Finalists: 1974, 1978, 2010
Odds: 25-1 (Ladbrokes)
Every World Cup turns up something surprise package: a team that threatens to go the distance seemingly from out of nowhere and beyond all expectations. If you’re looking for a strong outside bet you couldn’t do much worse than Chile.
Jorge Sampaoli’s team showed their credentials by defeating England 2-0 at Wembley last November and in Barcelona’s Alexis Sanchez, Arturo Vidal of Juventus, and Valencia forward Eduardo Vargas they certainly possess enough guile and threat going forward.
The high-pressing game deployed by Sampaoli was instrumental in Chile finishing 3rd in qualification behind Argentina and Colombia, winning nine of their 16 games, and it was highly effective in disrupting England’s rhythm in their autumn friendly. This European-esque style of play may be helpful as they face two European nations in their group, with the key match against the Dutch to be played in the relatively temperate climate of Sao Paulo.
A lack of height at the back may be a concern when it comes to defensive set pieces, but Chile will certainly target their match against Holland, whose inexperienced defence could be vulnerable.
Key player: Arturo Vidal
Juventus midfielder Vidal is known as ‘The Warrior’ in Turin, and nobody embodies the high-tempo spirit of this Chile side better.
Vidal’s battle with Xavi and Iniesta of Spain and Sneijder of Holland should prove to be compelling viewing in this group and if Chile are going to full off a surprise they will need an exceptional tournament from their star player.
Vidal’s ability to link the play from Cardiff City’s Gary Medel in defence and Barcelona’s Alexis Sanchez in attack is the source of much of what is excellent about the South Americans. If the Juventus star performs it would not surprise me if Chile find themselves in the knockout phase at the expense of a European giant.
World Cup best
Third Place: 1962
Odds: 33-1 (Coral)
The ‘Socceroos’ appear in their third successive World Cup finals and if they can repeat their performance of 8 years ago and reach the knockout stages it would no doubt prove a feat on a par with any of the World Cup triumphs of their rugby and cricket counterparts.
The draw probably couldn’t have been any tougher for the side captained by Crystal Palace midfielder Mile Jedinak, and lacking the quality of their 2006 roster. The reality is they will struggle to take a single point in the group, but will provide experience and exposure for a young squad.
Ange Postecoglou’s side will no doubt be well-organised and may do well to serve as a frustrating thorn in the side of their more illustrious opposition in the group, but you struggle to see where the quality and the goals will come from for them to make any sort of mark in this competition, especially having lost main striker Josh Kennedy (five goals in qualification) to injury.
Key player: Mile Jedinak
In a squad that is hardly filled with the sort of star names some past Australian teams boasted, Crystal Palace midfielder Jedinak presents a familiar name alongside veterans Tim Cahill and Mark Bresciano.
If Australia are going to get anywhere in the tournament it is probably by gutsing it out and no-one exemplifies that better than Jedinak who became a key player for Tony Pulis last season, as he rejuvenated Crystal Palace from relegation favourites to mid-table security.
The ‘Socceroos’ are going to need every bit of Jedinak’s energy, work rate and battling qualities if they are keep their shape and not be run ragged by the world class talent they will face.
Pacey starlet Adam Taggart (16 goals in the 2013-14 A-League) is the Australian wild card, but whether he is given the opportunity remains to be seen.
World Cup best
Round of 16: 2006
Odds: 500-1 (Bet365)
Spain v Netherlands (13 June, Salvador, 16.00 local time)
The group’s opening game is a mouth-watering repeat of the 2010 final. Once again Netherlands will be the firm underdogs and I’m sure they would love exact a little bit of revenge for the heartbreak of four years ago.
Spain are notoriously slow starters in World Cups, so it may prove the best chance for Netherlands to beat the champions and potentially throw the group wide open.
Netherlands v Chile (23 June, Sao Paulo, 13.00 local time)
A potential knock-out style match in the final round of group matches for the sides expected to contest second place. Played in the more temperate coastal climate this could well suit Chile’s high tempo game and don’t be surprised to see them eliminate Louis van Gaal’s team.
While Chile have the quality and potential to spring a surprise and eliminate Spain or Holland, I do expect the European nations to prove too strong and qualify from the group.
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