Though the World Cup kicks off with the hosts Brazil, hoping to celebrate victory in Sao Paulo, the biggest clash of the group stage undoubtedly comes the day after when Spain take on the Netherlands in Group B. The repeat of the 2010 final is a nice sentimental tribute to the finals in South Africa, but the two meet on very different terms this time around.
The Dutch appear to be a declining force while Spain have gone from strength to strength, both prior to their 2010 win and beyond. Louis van Gaal has already agreed to become David Moyes’ replacement at Old Trafford for the coming Premier League season, while key players Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben are all now 30 years old; a group stage exit is a possibility when faced with a fancied Chile side, while few would bet against Spain becoming the first team to retain the World Cup crown.
When Group B threw together the finalists of the previous tournament, it promised to be an exciting set of matches. Add a vibrant Chile side to the mix and a big casualty is inevitable early on with only two sides able to qualify from the group stages, and so both sides will be keen to take points early on. Being amongst such illustrious company, who’d be Australia?
With everyone starting in the same situation, van Gaal will be keen to get off to a good start and take at least a point from the reigning champions. With all three sides probably targeting maximum points against Australia, the points they can take off each other become even more important and a lot is riding on the game so early on; the final result will give a better indication of how Group B is likely to shape up.
Principally a 4-3-3 man though admitting he may need a more defensive style in Brazil, van Gaal has experimented and may opt for an extra defender in a 5-3-2 or extra midfielder for a 4-4-2. A largely domestic-based defence marshalled by Aston Villa captain Ron Vlaar will be key as a result as the Manchester United-bound boss looks to try and accommodate his players with a formation that suits them rather than one he wants to play.
Spain have had plenty of time to get used to the system and each other, and will stick with their 4-3-3 to best implement their passing game. The main question will be whether Del Bosque opts to play a false nine like Fabregas or instead decides to play with a more natural striker, a decision which may come a bit easier with the switching of allegiance of in form forward Diego Costa (much to the detriment of the hosts).
Though a lot rides on the game it is unlikely to be as ill-tempered as the final of four years ago, with both sides looking to start smoothly. The Netherlands defensive formation suggests intentions to sit back and keep out Spain, who will be happy to play keep ball and look to take advantage of any momentary lapses in the Dutch back-line. After dropping Negredo from his final squad, Del Bosque will probably opt for either Fernando Torres or Diego Costa to sharpen Spain’s attack and give them a spearhead to operate around, particularly when they will be outnumbered going forward.
Holland meanwhile will probably look to break up Spain’s rhythm and instigate attacks from deep, using the explosive Robben down the right to exploit space likely to be left by Jordi Alba and free up chances of the likes of van Persie. van Gaal knows the men who can cause a problem and will be keen to get the ball to them as much as possible.
For Spain it is difficult to isolate just a few players who carry a threat but the importance of the striker is going to be crucial in penetrating the Dutch defence. Should Del Bosque entrust Diego Costa, the Atletico Madrid striker who is set to complete a move to Chelsea will be given a chance to prove himself a true member of La Roja in the most hostile atmosphere possible. Midfield metronome Xavi will naturally help dictate play, while Barcelona midfield team mate Andres Iniesta will have a more attacking role. Jordi Alba will also look to improve on his impressive Euro 2012 performance to become a real influence for Spain, both attacking and defensively.
Holland are without their own key midfield man after rising star Kevin Strootman was ruled out with injury, but much emphasis on this game will be the performance of their defence and Vlaar will be key to the that as a leader in the centre. The likes of young Daryl Janmaat can carry the ball out of defence to provide thrust from the right, but the key to Dutch prosperity against Spain will be how well they can attack and whether they can score the goals necessary. van Gaal favours deploying his star triumvirate of Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie in the most advanced positions; whether they can get chances or not will determine how difficult Spain find them to deal with.
In such a tight game it is difficult to call, but Spain will be favourites as many feel Holland may relinquish second spot to Chile and experience the same fate as Italy and France in 2010 as World Cup finalists who fail to get out of the group in the following tournament. Del Bosque’s men have dominated football for the past six years, and will be keen to become the first side to reclaim the World Cup.
In fairness, the Netherlands don’t have a side that reaches the same dizzy heights of previous teams; they resorted to bullying Spain in the 2010 final but won’t feel the need to chase the game considering it’s only the group stage. van Gaal may just take a defensive approach and look to break up Spain before trying to get their key players on the ball and nick a goal on the break.
It’s hard to look beyond Spain, and playing a striker instead of a false nine will give them the necessary focal point to finish Holland off. They are likely to dominate the ball, and Del Bosque will be happy to play the patient, passing game if it means his side can get results. The Dutch defence is less experienced and lacks quality, and so Spain should be able to carve them open and outscore Holland who will struggle to get the chances.
Prediction: Spain 2-0 Netherlands
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