Group B: Spain secure, Chile surging
It may not technically be the group of death, but Group B features three teams that have enough talent to contend for the cup.
2010’s champion Spain are the obvious favorites, but don’t sleep on under the radar Chile, who dominated World Cup qualifying in one of the world’s toughest regions.
Add the Netherlands, losers to Spain in the 2010 final, and you have the potential for some of the best early round action of the tournament. Australia are the minnows of this group, but have shocked the world before, advancing to the round of 16 in 2006.
How they’ll finish
SPI Rank: 44; FIFA World Ranking: 62
2010 World Cup: Eliminated in Group Stage
Odds to advance to knock-out stages: 3.9 percent *
What to drink when watching Australia: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r_AmlG11cWg
Fresh off qualifying out of the Asia Confederation for the first time, Australia had the misfortune of drawing the second most difficult group in this year’s World Cup.
With only a handful of players good enough to feature in the world’s top leagues – even with a favorable draw – the trip to Brazil was always going to be more of a holiday for the Australian players than anything else.
New York Red Bulls forward Tim Cahill is the most well known player on the squad by a long shot, but the Aussie’s best player is midfielder Mile Jedinak.
You wouldn’t expect one of the best defensive midfielders in Europe to play his club football for England’s Crystal Palace, but the hard tackling Jedinak is one of the primary reasons the newly promoted side shockingly finished 11th in 2014.
Jedinak lead the Premier League in tackles this season, and is a beast in the middle of the park. But Jedinak is just as competent as a facilitator, tasked with the responsibility for club and country to start build-up by making incisive and cutting passes up the pitch.
With one of the best headers of the ball in Cahill, Australia will always be a threat to score on set pieces, which should give them an advantage against shorter clubs like Spain.
But the Socceroos lack of elite talent coupled with three exceptionally difficult group games, will see Australia suffer the same fate as they did in South Africa.
SPI Rank: 5; FIFA World Ranking: 14
2010 World Cup: Eliminated in Round of 16
Odds to advance to knock-out stages: 74.4 percent
What to drink when watching Chile: Pisco Sour — A cocktail containing brandy and sour citrus juice is both the national drink of Chile and Peru, with the latter celebrating a yearly public holiday in honor of the cocktail. This is similar to the Budweiser national holiday in the United States, also known as the 4th of July.
In one word Chile are aggressive. Ever since the hiring of manager Jorge Sampaoli at the end of 2012, La Roja have re-employed a high pressing, pile driving attack that was the country’s hallmark in years past.
The results have followed, as Chile finished the second round of the highly competitive CONMEBOL group qualifying with a 5-0-1 record.
Not unlike their South American counterparts Brazil, Chile press as high as possible with their wing backs or fullbacks — depending on whether they employ a back four of back three — and aggressively pursue the ball after losing possession, so as not to be vulnerable on the counter attack.
This tactic is also employed — and was popularized — by FC Barcelona, a club that Chilean striker Alexis Sanchez thrived at this season, scoring 19 goals in La Liga, finishing only behind Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Diego Costa.
Like the aforementioned Austrailia, Chile’s most important player is a world class central midfielder, in Juventas’ Arturo Vidal.
Vidal reflects the Chilaian style perfectly, tasked both with cleaning up in the defensive third, and moving into the attacking third to set up his teammates and score goals himself. Vidal led the team in goals during qualifying, tallying five.
Chile may lack household names throughout the squad, but as a unit they have been one of the best teams in the world over the last 12 months.
Being a South American club certainly helps a ton playing in a South American World Cup and can hopefully make up for one of the tougher draws in the group stage.
If Chile can get through the treacherous group, they will likely have the reward of playing Brazil in the round of 16. A tall task for sure, but if Chile bring their A game, they have the quality to beat anybody.
SPI Rank: 10; FIFA World Ranking: 15
2010 World Cup: Lost in Final to Spain
Odds to advance to knock-out stages: 36.6 percent
What to drink when watching Netherlands: Jenever or Holland Gin —basically a flavored vodka, created by bubbling spirits through juniper berries.
Though, if your garden is low on juniper berries, I’m sure a bottle of Absolut BERRI AÇAÍ will do the trick for you and your 17-year old sister.
Despite being a goal away from hoisting their first World Cup trophy in history in 2010, expectations are low for Dutch this time around. An atrocious showing in the Euro 2012 tournament certainly didn’t help, with the Oranje losing all three matches amidst rumors of a rift between stars Robin Van Persie and Wesley Sneijder.
This, coupled with the exit of some of the squads veteran leaders – most notably former captian Mark van Bommel — and the eternal question marks regarding Van Persie’s health, leave many wondering what Netherlands team will show up in Brazil.
On the bright side, the Dutch had an insane goal differential through World Cup qualifying, scoring 29 more goals than their opponents in only 10 games.
Van Persie scored 11 of those goals, and WHEN properly fit, is in the conversation for best center forward on the planet. However, reports that Van Persie underwent medical testing following a halftime exit in a friendly on Monday certainly won’t put Dutch supporters at ease.
If Van Persie is able to make it on the pitch, he will be joined by two other elite attackers, making the Netherlands potentially one of the most dangerous scoring teams in this years tournament.
First there’s Bayern Munich’s Arjen “dodgy flapper” Robben, a right winger who’s perfection of one move — cutting inside to shoot with his left foot — has made for a career of world class finishes.
Joining them is Sneijder — once considered a top 5 midfielder in the world — who’s seen his stock fall after two consecutive so-so seasons. If Sneijder can replicate his 2010 World Cup form for even half the matches, the Dutch could once again find themselves in contention for a trophy.
But Sneijder’s form is one of many — possibly too many — “ifs” for the Dutch. Van Persie may not even see the pitch, and if Sneijder doesn’t show up, the Dutch will find themselves in a similar position the last time they drew a difficult group — on a plane back home.
SPI Rank: 3; FIFA World Ranking: 1
2010 World Cup: Winners
Odds to advance to knock-out stages: 85.1 percent
What to drink when watching Spain: Sangria — Normally consists of wine, chopped fruit, a sweetener and if you’re feeling especially randy, some Brandy to top it off.
Sangria is great. So great in fact, God reportedly drank it while he rested on the 7th day. (Source: Newest Testament)
Spain have won that last three large international tournaments they’ve entered, winning the European Championship in 2008 and 2012, and winning the countries first World Cup in 2012, after a long history of disappointment.
That stretch is considered the best in the history of international football and this iteration of Spain are thought in many football circles as the greatest team of all time.
Despite all this, Spain are somehow not the favorites to win in 2014, even with 16 players returning from the 2010 squad.
Their resounding defeat at the hands of Brazil in last summer’s Confederation’s Cup probably has the most to do with this. That result aside – on a player by player basis – Spain are still the most talented club in the world.
Like Barcelona FC — of which Spain has eight players — La Furia Roja continue to employ the tika-taka style, a philosophy of keeping possession with quick, one-touch passes, and swarming the opponent to regain possession when it is, if ever, lost.
This style appears effortless at times when conducted by world class talents Xabi Alonso, Inesta, Xavi and Sergio Busquets — to name a few — patrolling the midfield.
Busquets in particular is regarded as the best one-touch passer on the planet; the defensive midfielder famous for his inch perfect touch from absurd angles.
Striker Diego Costa’s decision to spurn Brazil for the Spanish National team could in fact sway the entire tournament, as the greatest midfield in the world now has an in form striker to put through for goal scoring opportunities.
Spain’s lack of height continue to make them vulnerable to crosses in the box, but the inclusion of 6-foot-3 Javi Martinez at defensive midfielder should help defending set pieces, as well as give Spain essentially an extra defender to deal with counter attacks.
The young Martinez’ inclusion might be vital enough to unseat a more experienced midfielder — possibly the legendary Xavi — who seemed to be slowing down considerably during the second half of the La Liga campaign.
There is no reason to believe Spain won’t win the group or have an excellent shot to win their fourth consecutive major tournament. A European team has never won a world cup in South America, but hosts Brazil may be the only team that can come close to matching the talent of this historically great Spain side.
A clash in the final seems almost inevitable, and if Spain are able to defeat the hosts, they will cement themselves as the greatest team in the history of football.
* Percentages based on 10,000 simulations of the six group games using ESPN’s Soccer Power Index.