Last Wednesday, Spain’s appetite for world domination finally diminished, as another disappointing performance saw them become the third defending champions in the last four World Cups to crash out at the group stage. Their conquerors, Chile and the Netherlands, now meet in a game which will decide who finishes top of a section which has been decided surprisingly early.
With Xavi dropped, it was another performance lacking in the commitment and intensity that has set Vicente Del Bosque’s men out from the rest over the past six years, with the likes of Xabi Alonso openly admitting that they have lost some of the hunger that took them to the pinnacle of the world game.
The introduction of Diego Costa has not produced a goal from open play, and there have been reports of a rift in the camp between Del Bosque and Cesc Fabregas. Spain may have to build again, but this group of players can take solace from the fact that they have created a lasting legacy, but it appears that the ‘tiki-taka’ style of football has been overcome.
They now face Australia to avoid the ignominy of finishing bottom of the group, but after their opening two performances, that does not look a certainty. The Socceroos were hugely unlucky to lose to the Dutch, and have given a very good account of themselves in each of their two games. They have also created a lasting memory, with Tim Cahill’s volley against the Netherlands in the running to be the tournament’s best goal.
Louis van Gaal takes his side through to the knockout stages, but he will know that they must improve defensively if they are to have a chance of challenging to win the World Cup. Against better teams than Australia, they would have been punished, and it was only an error from goalkeeper Matthew Ryan that edged them over the line.
Thanks to their superior goal difference, a draw for the Netherlands would be enough for them to secure top spot in Group B, which would avoid a probable meeting with hosts Brazil in the second round. However, they would have seen enough from Chile over the opening two rounds of games that they cannot be taken lightly.
A combination of a vibrant and skilful front three and an effective though unheralded central defensive duo of Gonzalo Jara and Gary Medel have seen the South Americans justify their status as dark horses to lift the trophy on July 13. However, to have any chance of doing so, key players such as Alexis Sanchez and Aturo Vidal must continue to put in quality performances.
They beat Spain with the minimum of fuss, playing slick passing football in contrast to the counter attacking ability of the Netherlands, who rely heavily on Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie, by some distance their two best players. As a result, picking a winner between the two sides looks a tough call.