World Cup Preview: Group B

There is less disparity in group B than there is in Group A. Spain obviously be the favorites, but the Netherlands and Chile might both pose a threat to their aging dominance. Australia, well, better luck next draw.

Spain: The question is: how much stock do you place in the Confederations Cup? From 2008-2012 they won Europe twice, and their first World Cup. A second would cement their place in history as one of the best national sides to ever play. But last summer, Spain got demolished by hosts Brazil in the final of the Confederations Cup. No one had been able to dismantle the Spanish that way before, and it felt an awful lot like the end of an era. The former rock of their defense, Carles Puyol, has retired, and spark plug Xavi is on the decline at 34. This year’s tournament may well be the last stand for Spain as we know them.

Now, that being said, Spain are among the favorites in Brazil. They lost in the 2009 Confederations Cup (to the U.S.!) and it didn’t seem to cause them much damage. They went undefeated through a qualification group that included France on their way to this World Cup, and they still have as much talent as anyone in Europe. Will that be good enough in the Brazilian heat?

Netherlands: The Dutch are the other team from 2010’s final, and it should be remembered that they had the better of the chances in an often ugly 90 minutes. But while Spain went on to win in extra time, and in Euro 2012, the Dutch went home without a point from a difficult group. World Cup qualification handed them and easy group, and they only suffered a single draw in their path to Brazil. Between Arjen Robben and Robin Van Persie, the attacking talent is certainly there for them, and on their day they can be one of the most entertaining teams in the world. But defense has been their problem in recent years (and seemingly throughout their history), and in recent friendlies they’ve been using a 5-3-2 to shore up the back end. All three of their group opponents could score on them. The Oranje may also suffer from the sideplot of Louis Van Gaal’s impending move to Manchester United; let’s hope his focus is on the present.

Chile: Four South American countries have hosted a World Cup, and Chile is the only one of those four to never have won the tournament. Chile is in the second tier of South American teams at the World Cup; they won’t threaten to win the thing, but could easily escape even this group. Their best player, Arturo Vidal, would be welcome in just about any midfield in the world. Chile like to play a high-pressure system, which may be difficult against the attacking threat of Spain and the Netherlands. But they’ll have no fear, especially on their home continent. They played Spain in South Africa, and along with Switzerland were one of just two teams to score against the eventual champions.

Australia: The Aussies are a decent team; in another group, advancing wouldn’t be out of the question. But here they are a clear fourth. Tim Cahill alone makes them dangerous from set pieces, and it wouldn’t be unreasonable to see the Socceroos steal a point or even three playing on the counter. But if they reach the knockout stages, something has gone horribly wrong elsewhere.

Key Player: Diego Costa, Spain

Costa is very much a wild-card at this tournament. He was selected for the team despite an injury which saw him play just nine minutes in the Champions League Final. Assuming he gets on the pitch, he will be booed every time he touches the ball, by a Brazilian crowd that feels he should be playing for them. But if he is fit, his quality has the potential to transform a Spanish side that has so often lacked a significant goal-scoring threat from the striker position. Much of the squad will look familiar to those who watched in 2010, but Costa provides them with something they didn’t have.

What will happen: This is a difficult group, but I can’t envision a scenario in which the Spanish don’t escape. The difference between the Netherlands and Chile is closer than most would think, and that’s compounded by this tournament being played in South America. The Dutch collapse in 2012 makes it difficult to place much faith with them, and I’d actually favor the Chileans to advance in their stead.

 

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