World Cup Group B - Spain, the Netherlands, Chile, Australia
Spain may be World Cup holders and top of the world rankings, but Stephen Donovan warns that merely making it through their group could prove to be a challenge this time around...
When the draw for the World Cup was made back in December, one match which caught the eye more than most was a repeat of the 2010 final in only the third game of the tournament, as holders Spain were placed in Group B alongside non-seeded runners-up the Netherlands. There are scores to settle. Joining them in this intriguing pool are South American dark horses Chile and rank outsiders Australia.
If Spain can extend their era of dominance and win this World Cup, it would be their greatest achievement to date, given that the conditions heavily favour the South American sides. However, they remain team to beat despite the surprising way in which tey were dismantled by hosts Brazil in the final of the 2013 Confederations Cup. It was a result that shaped the opinions of many as to how this World Cup may go.
Vicente Del Bosque is likely to go with a number of the stars who helped to win each of the last three major tournaments, although it will be interesting to see whether he decides to play with an orthodox striker, having not done so at Euro 2012. Atletico Madrid top scorer Diego Costa could be a key man, but the world is likely to see more of the same from Spain - the ‘tiki-taka’ football which has served them so well in the recent past.
Despite being handed a tough group, Spain should still be expected to progress to the knockout stages, meaning that the battle to move through alongside them is likely to be between Chile and the Netherlands, who meet in the final round of group matches in a game which could potentially decide their fate.
Of the two, Chile have the advantage of playing on their home continent, so adapting to the conditions should not be a problem. They are a side that cannot be discounted as contenders to go some way in this competition, having shown in the past that they can match Spain on their day.
However, they will need key duo Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal to perform strongly. Vidal in particular comes into this in form, having had an outstanding season with Juventus. Club colleague mate Mauricio Isla also made the squad, of which a considerable number play their football in South America.
Despite losing in the final for the third time in 2010, the Netherlands’ expectations going into this World Cup seem relatively low, particularly after their surprisingly poor performances at Euro 2012. Despite that, they qualified convincingly, and have a hugely experienced and successful manager in Louis van Gaal, who will take over at Manchester United following this tournament.
When it comes to average age, the Dutch squad is among the highest in the tournament, meaning that they are set to be reliant on several of those who excelled on the world stage four years ago. Wesley Sneijder was at the peak of his powers back then and will be hoping to return to form, while much will be expected of Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie.
Meanwhile, out of all the 32 nations represented at the finals, it was Australia who were given the toughest draw of all. Coach Ange Postecoglou remains hopeful, but it appears that their young side will struggle to make an impact. Gaining as much as a single point could be a challenge, but it represents a useful learning curve for a side captained by Crystal Palace star Mile Jedinak.
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