Friday, June 13, 2014 11:07 am
Not since Brazil won three titles in four World Cup editions between 1958 and 1970 has a country threatened to dominate world football in the manner Spain has since 2008.
The Spaniards have won every major title at national level since lifting the European Championship in 2008, defending the European title in 2012 two years after winning the World Cup for the first time ever.
But Spain received a rude shock as their title streak was ended last year in a manner very unexpected by a bouyant and very motivated Brazil in the final of the FIFA Confederations Cup.
That loss to Brazil questioned the tiki-taka philosophy that had served Spain so well in the five years before that match, with a Neymar inspired Brazil defending in numbers, hustling for the ball when the Spaniards had possession and after dispossessing them, converting the chances that came their way when attacking in numbers.
One loss should not rule Spain out as favourites though, with coach Vicente Del Bosque stating his team fear no one at the World Cup ahead of their title defence, a feat no country has managed since Brazil won the 1958 and 1962 editions.
The defending world and European champions have some of the finest collection of individual players, especially in midfield. And though their philosophy seems to have been found out, Del Bosque looks set to stick with the style of play as Spain aim to become the first country to win the Euros and World Cup back-to-back.
Spain will be put to a big test right in the opening match when they come up against the Netherlands on June 13; the nation they beat with an extra-time Andres Iniesta goal to win the 2010 World Cup.
That final had been between two of the World Cup’s biggest underachievers. Now, that unenviable title belongs solely to the Dutch who made it to the 2014 World Cup in unstoppable fashion; winning all but one of their qualifying matches.
Unlike Spain whose football philosophy is a true striker’s nightmare, the Netherlands work with an attacking style of football which favours the fearsome Manchester United striker Robin van Persie and Bayern Munich’s in-form attacker Arjen Robben, or Klaas-Jan Huntelaar when one of the former is not available.
The big issue for Louis Van Gaal’s Netherlands however would be at the back. The defence does not seem like the assured unit that the 2010 team’s was. Goalkeeper Martin Stekelenberg was left out having lost the starting gloves at Fulham while veteran defenders John Heitinga, Joris Mathijsen and Giovanni van Bronckhorst as well as midfielder Mark van Bommel are retired.
Gregory Van Der Wiel’s exclusion was puzzling however, having had a decent season at French champions PSG. Virgil van Dijk’s exclusion was just as puzzling as the Celtic defender at times shone brightest at the back in Dutch colours.
All those unavailable and excluded players have led Van Gaal to go with highly rated upstarts such as Stefan de Vris, Danny Blind and Bruno Martins Indi in defence alongside goalkeepers Tim Krul and Michel Vorm as well as Aston Villa defender Ron Vlaar.
The brilliance of the Dutch attack could be thwarted by a weak defence… or not. Van Gaal has been experimenting with the 5-3-2 formation since AS Roma midfielder Kevin Strootman failed to recover in time for the World Cup and so far it has been modest.
While the formation goes some way to address the weak backline, it makes obvious an even more fatal weakness which would be inhibiting Wesley Sneijder, most likely to be the playmaker deployed between the two forwards and the other two midfielders.
Once the opposition succeed, the Dutch team’s transition of play would be broken. This vulnerability coupled with the inexperience of a number of the players invited looks likely to be Netherland’s undoing at some point during the World Cup.
Whether any of Chile and Australia; the other nations that make up Group B, can take advantage and upset the Dutch as well as Spain remains to be seen. But Chile would fancy their chances against one of the big two.
After Argentina and Colombia, Chile was the best team in South American qualification, following up their third place finish with a commendable display in the loss to Germany in a friendly and an impressive win over England at Wembley.
Playing with a 3-5-2 formation which deploys wingbacks to provide with to a midfield consisting of Juventus duo Arturo Vidal and Mauricio Isla, with Barcelona’s Alexis Sanchez and an in-form Eduardo Vargas up front, Chile should be considered as potential darkhorses in Group B.
Australia on their part are in a transition period, with veteran Tim Cahill the last of an experienced generation left after the retirement of goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer and defender Lucas Neill being left out.
The Socceroos had lost 6-0 in quick succession to Brazil and France, matches which led to the transition period that has seen a host of new faces come into the national team, including a new coach, thus making Brazil 2014 more of a stepping stone for major competitions in the future.
Main Players to Watch
It would be keenly interesting to see how Diego Costa fits into the Spain set-up. His native Brazil could have greatly done with him and for two friendly matches they had him, but the Atletico Madrid top scorer eventually opted for his adopted country.
A hamstring injury has hampered him since April and forced him to limp out of Atletico’s last and biggest two matches of last season; triumphant in one and so close to winning the other. It would be a shame if he sat through the World Cup or limped out injured again on the big stage.
For the Netherlands, the forward line to be led by Robin van Persie can do enough to keep opponents from attacking the Dutchmen’s suspect defence. But when the Dutch come up against a team that manages to restrict Van Persie’s gang, the reliability of Michel Vorm or Tim Krul in goal would be greatly tested.
The Chileans are capable of posing such a threat from long range and while Vidal’s recovery from a knee injury is a boost for the South Americans, Alexis Sanchez’s pace and goal threat would prove equally, if not more vital in a tough Group B.
At the last World Cup, Spain were beaten by Switzerland in their opening group match. Such a shock result is possible from one of the Netherlands or Chile but it is still hard to see Spain not qualifying from the group.
And in a usual reality, the Netherlands should easily be sure bets for the second round as well but the threat of Chile cannot be overlooked and it would be interesting how the group turns out eventually.