The reigning European and world champions, Spain are, together with Brazil, the team to beat this World Cup. Boasting world-class players in all positions, Spain are seen as tournament favourites by most people. But it should be pointed out that a European side has never won the World Cup on South American soil, and they were thrashed by Brazil in the Confederations Cup, losing 3-0.
However, the Furia Roja sailed through their qualifying group unbeaten and finished first ahead of France, Finland, Georgia and Belarus. In virtually all of the games, they dominated the midfield (as per usual) and also registered an impressive five clean sheets. However, they struggled to get goals, which is again not surprising, considering that Spain just love to play with a 4-5-1 formation where the sole striker plays as a ‘false nine’ – usually Cesc Fabregas, but Fernando Torres is often thrown into a game in its latter stages.
Brazilian-born Atletico Madrid striker Diego Costa is a doubt for the World Cup, but it can be argued that his style of play doesn’t suit Spain’s notorious tiki-taka possession game. Xavi and Andres Iniesta will once again be pulling the strings in midfield, while Busquests will likely once again play the role of holding midfielder, triggering counter attacks. First-choice Iker Casillas is increasingly looking shaky, with his howler in the Champions League final being self-evident. Sergio Ramos, on the other hand, is in the form of his life and he will be one of Spain’s most important players.
Key player: Andres Iniesta
With Xavi now looking increasingly past his peak, Iniesta will be the lynchpin in this Spain squad, largely courtesy of his flawless passing, dribbling and uncanny ability to read the game. Since he is now 30 years old, this may well be Iniesta’s last World Cup.
One to watch: Koke
Atletico Madrid’s march to the La Liga could not have been possible without Koke, a dynamic box-to-box midfielder who is not only a dead ball specialist and an excellent passer but is also proficient in the tackle and scores screamers from distance. One of his strengths is his versatility – he can literally play anywhere in midfield, and has even appeared as right-back for Spain against Finland.
Spain should reach the quarter-finals at the very least and will likely make the semi-finals, where they will probably lose to Brazil or Argentina – their loss to Brazil in the Confederations Cup plus recent friendly results point to two things: that Spain can’t really handle the South American heat and that their footballing dominance is waning.
Finishing runners-up yet again last World Cup and exiting at the group stage at Euro 2012, the Netherlands have a reputation of infighting, and there’s no sign of this tradition stopping anytime soon, as Man Utd’s Robin van Persie and Galatasaray’s Wesley Sneijder (current and former captain respectively) can’t stand the sight of each other and, reportedly, several other squad members do not see eye to eye. This was, as you might expect, the main reason for their embarrassing exit in Euro 2012. Many are already writing this Netherlands team off and it’s not hard to see why – their squad quality is poor this year compared to past previous sides such as the 2010 World Cup one, with many of their better-known players reaching the 30 age-mark. These include Wesley Sneijder, Bayern’s Arjen Robben and Milan’s Nigel de Jong. The Netherlands have also been drawn in one of the Groups of Death, with Spain, Chile and Australia. Both Spain and Chile will fancy their chances of progessing to the next round, although Australia might find the going quite tough. A further blow was added when two of their best players, Kevin Strootman and Rafael van der Vaart, pulled out of the tournament due to injury. However, their coach Louis van Gaal, recently announced as the new Man Utd manager, is wily, cunning and experienced, and might help his team provide some upsets this summer.
Key player: Robin van Persie
The talismanic captain and favourite of van Gaal is Netherland’s best chance of progressing to the next stage together with Arjen Robben. Van Persie has struggled this season for Man Utd but has always played well for the Oranje.
One to watch: Memphis Depay
The PSV forward is being currently observed by some of Europe’s biggest clubs after an excellent season. Despite being often deployed as a left winger, Depay is naturally a striker. He specialises in taking the ball past his marker, boasting a 58% success rate in the Eredivisie last season. It is worth noting that he is just 20 and will get even better with age.
Netherlands can just about scrape through the group stage if they play well, but will then face Brazil in the second round. Don’t expect the Oranje to overcome the Seleçao this time round, however.
Coach Jorge Sampaoli has made Chile a formidable team, finishing third in the CONMEBOL qualifying group behind Argentina and Colombia. Under Sampaoli, Chile play exciting attacking football and shift tactics depending on the opposition (they regularly shift from a three-man to a four-man defence) and his only loss since taking over from Claudio Borghi was against Brazil. While Chile’s squad strength hardly compares to that of powerhouses Argentina, Brazil and Colombia, they have two of the best players in the world in Juventus’ Arturo Vidal and Barcelona’s Alexis Sanchez – both coming off excellent seasons for their respective clubs. La Roja also boast several quality players in Santos’ Eugenio Mena, Valencia’s Eduardo Vargas and Juventus’ Mauricio Isla. They enter the tournament in respectable form, garnering impressive performances against England, Germany and Brazil in recent friendlies.
Key player: Arturo Vidal
Is there anything this guy can’t do in midfield? Pressing, marking, tackling, shooting from distance, dictating the tempo – Vidal is similar to Yaya Toure in many respects, and is a dynamo of a box-to-box midfielder and has arguably been Juventus’ most important player these past two seasons. However, his fitness is in doubt and, despite making the squad, might not be at his best.
One to watch: Alexis Sanchez
A right winger or second striker, Sanchez was thought of as a flop for Barcelona in the 2012-13 season but his performances have been impressive this season, even dislodging Neymar from the starting lineup several times. Sanchez is explosive and a wizard in the dribble, bagging three outstanding assists for Chile in their 3-2 win over Egypt.
It is entirely possible that Chile will beat Netherlands to second place in Group B, depending on the latter’s form and team spirit. Vidal’s fitness is under scrutiny and their squad depth is lacking. They could struggle in the second round – and one wouldn’t place bets on them going further.
Expectations are low for the Socceroos, especially as they were unlucky enough to be drawn in one of the Groups of Death together with Spain, Netherlands and Chile. Their qualification was not as straightforward as those in previous tournaments, but their coach Holger Osieck was nevertheless fired after suffering 6-0 defeats against Brazil and France, being replaced by Ange Postecoglou, a home-grown coach. The bad news is that the squad is an ageing one, and veterans such as Mark Schwarzer and Harry Kewell have retired from international football. To add insult to injury, Bayer Leverkusen’s Robbie Kruse – arguably their best player – has been ruled out of the World Cup due to a knee injury. Instead, Australia will look to Tim Cahill, now 34, to provide the goals, despite him being more of an attacking midfielder than a striker.
Key player: Tim Cahill
One of Australia’s best ever players and its all-time top scorer, the ex-Everton man now plays for the New York Red Bulls, and this will almost certainly be his last international tournament. His leadership, experience and goal poaching will be crucial if the Socceroos are to harbour any hopes of somehow making their way out of this group of death.
One to watch: Mitchell Langerak
Borussia Dortmund’s Langerak is the backup goalkeeper to Roman Weidenfeller but is only 25 and has actually only conceded one goal in his 10 appearances for his club. One of Europe’s most underrated keepers, Langerak’s dedication is such that he broke two front teeth when he collided with a goalpost in order to stop Lorenzo Insigne’s free-kick, in his only failed attempt to prevent a goal with Dortmund.
It’s just a case of damage limitation. Australia will in all likelihood be the whipping boys of the group and their target is likely to limit the scoreline as much as possible. Don’t bet against them managing a draw against Netherlands or Chile though.