World Cup Group B Preview
With a repeat of the 2010 World Cup final as the first match, you could be forgiven for thinking on first sight that the outcome of Group B is one of the easier to call on paper, at least in terms of the two teams to progress. After the headline opening game, however, a talented Chile side will be backing themselves to cause what many would class as something of an upset and beat either Spain or the Netherlands to a place in the knockout stages.
Brazil 2014 will likely be the last World Cup for several of the Spanish golden generation, with mainstays such as Iker Casillas, Xavi, Xabi Alonso and David Villa all heading towards the twilight of their careers, and it has been cautiously suggested by some in the build-up to the tournament that the all-conquering squad of the last six years may be past its best.
However, Spain failed to win just twice in eight qualification matches, conceding late equalisers to Finland and France. They also arrive in Brazil with a remarkably experienced squad, averaging over 60 caps per player, including centurions in goal, defence, midfield and attack, and with just three of the 23 players being under the age of 25.
Iker Casillas, despite only featuring in a grand total of two La Liga matches for Real Madrid this season, will be one of the most experienced goalkeepers and captains at the tournament. Sergio Ramos, with his 117 caps at the age of 28, provides steel in defence whilst the midfield boasts both industry in Alonso and Sergio Busquets and flair in players such as Andrés Iniesta and the addition of Diego Costa up front adds a whole new dimension which has been lacking in recent years.
Throw in the fact that current coach Vicente del Bosque has been at the helm since 2008, leading the country to their 2010 World Cup and 2012 European Championship titles, and it would be one of the shocks of the tournament if Spain failed to qualify through the group stage.
Finalists at the previous World Cup and unbeaten throughout the entirety of 2013, albeit generally against less-than-impressive opposition (none of their qualifying opponents were ranked in the FIFA top 30), the Netherlands will be expecting to qualify from Group B.
However, a relatively inexperienced defence could prove the Oranje’s weakness, with Ron Vlaar’s 24 caps being comfortably the highest total of any defender in the squad. Villa’s captain is also one of only two Dutch defenders in Brazil over the age of 24, although players such as Ajax’s Daley Blind, 2013-14 Dutch Player of the Season, play with ability and maturity beyond their age.
The Dutch have also lost key members of the squad to injury, including PSG right-back Gregory van der Wiel, centurion Rafael van der Vaart and Roma’s Kevin Strootman.
Arjen Robben will likely be the team’s key player and creative focal point, and with the experienced attacking options in the squad – led by Louis van Gaal’s golden boy and captain Robin van Persie’s return to fitness – boasting a combined total of 109 international goals from 267 caps, the Dutch will surely be far more confident going forward than defending their own goal.
La Roja have lost only twice since March 2013, to Brazil and Germany in matches played on foreign continents, and coach Jorge Sampaoli’s side should play with the arrogance and swagger which has become their custom in recent months.
Their comfortable and deserved 2-0 win over England at Wembley in November showcased their talents, and leading man Alexis Sanchez, who was outstanding that night, will again look to provide their main threat.
They are far from a one-man show, however. In Claudio Bravo they have an experienced goalkeeper and captain, and players such as Juventus’ Arturo Vidal (dubbed by some as ‘the complete midfielder’), star playmaker Jorge Valdívia and Basel’s Marcelo Díaz would star in most international sides.
However, Vidal is unlikely to be fit for their opening match against Australia – a huge blow for his country’s hopes of progressing from a difficult group – and Sampaoli will need his first-choice XI to stay fit throughout the tournament if Chile hope to achieve their potential in Brazil.
Almost certainly doomed to finish fourth in perhaps the most difficult group for a fourth-pot team at the 2014 tournament, Australia could still make life difficult for their three daunting opponents.
New York Red Bulls’ Tim Cahill is still their main man, but the former Everton man will have his work cut out in an attacking role for his country as the burden of both goalscoring and holding up the ball will likely fall almost entirely upon his shoulders at what is surely his final World Cup.
Crystal Palace and Socceroos captain Mile Jedinak will be the key man in midfield in his defensive role, although successfully coping with the attacking talents of the group’s other three teams is likely to be a bridge too far.
Without meaning to be either too harsh or too patronising towards the Australians, it seems fair to say that taking a point off any of their three opponents would be something of an achievement.
Predicted top scorer
Diego Costa and Robin van Persie seem two of the most obvious choices, spearheading as they surely will their respective countries’ hugely talented and attacking line-ups. Don’t write off Alexis Sanchez though – having just completed the most prolific domestic season of his career, the Chilean star will be in his element over the next couple of weeks.
Spain and Chile. Although the Dutch will undoubtedly score goals, they will concede them in a way that Spain will not, and the South American venue of the tournament will work in Chile’s favour. The final game of the group sees Chile face the Netherlands in what is likely to be a winner-takes-all battle for the second qualifying spot, and I fancy Chile to come out on top as the pressure to qualify will be heavier on the Dutch.
Group B AVFC connection
Vlaar will be under a huge amount of pressure as the experienced man in a youthful Dutch backline, and he will need all of his leadership qualities if the Dutch are to progress.
I presumed Antonio Luna was nailed-on for the Spanish left-back position but del Bosque seems to prefer Jordi Alba – the mind boggles! 😉
Had this World Cup come a year or so earlier, Villa might have had two representatives in the Australian squad, but neither the club’s former Aussie midfielder Brett Holman nor the absent utility man Chris Herd were selected for the Socceroos squad for Brazil. It’s all on you then Ron – do us proud!
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