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Jun 12, 2014

What can Spain expect vs. the Dutch?

ESPN FC's Robbie Earle questions whether Spain are hungry enough to repeat their 2010 World Cup triumph.

CURITIBA, Bra., -- That's a couple of times I've asked the question now.

Spain are so used to teams "parking the bus" that every so often, when a rival nation of power, tradition and (usually) attacking intent comes along, you expect them to look forward to the test.

Eager.

But by now, La Roja's finest are pretty wary, pretty pessimistic.

So before the World Cup semifinal and final four years ago, I asked a variety of Vicente del Bosque's guys whether they were anticipating a slightly more "toe-to-toe" bout.

A match where caution was substituted by attacking quality.

Before the Germany semi the answer was, "hopefully"; before the Netherlands final it was "well ... we'll see" and before this Group B opener against the latter opponents in Salvador, Sergio Busquets joked, "I'll tell you after the match!"

Meaning: "No!"

I'd asked him because there's no doubt that during Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal's entire coaching life -- luxuriant and worthwhile career that it's been -- his motif has been to surge forward to pass with attacking intent; to be better, more entertaining and more technically adventurous than the opponent.

Now, Spain are prepared for something different.

Their scout, Antolin Gonzalo Martín, has done his diligence, duly, and taken back material to Del Bosque and Toni Grande which makes Spain reckon that Van Gaal may well try to let La Roja dash themselves on the rocky barrier of a five-man defence of Daryl Janmaat, Stefan De Vrij, Ron Vlaar, Bruno Martins Indi and Daley Blind before catching them on the break via Jordy Clasie, Wesley Sneijder, Robin van Persie and, above all, Arjen Robben.

Honestly? If the match were in the cold, grey, damp climate of Curitiba, where Spain have been training these last couple of days, you would be well-advised to back the world champions.

Training has been undertaken with all the verve and adrenaline of a squad of guys at their first tournament -- not the grizzled, aging veterans that the world has been keen to portray del Bosque's side.

While neither recent friendly -- 2-0 wins against Bolivia in Sevilla and El Salvador in Washington, D.C. -- featured fare to make the doubters begin to consume their own words, the fact that four goals were scored and none conceded added to those sharp training sessions in hinting that La Roja are more ready than might have been expected.

While Van Gaal was already ensconced in the Netherlands camp, no doubt seeking ways to clamp down on Xavi and Andres Iniesta (to each of whom he gave senior FC Barcelona debuts during his two reigns as coach at Camp Nou), some of Spain's players were still knee-deep in the Champions League final.

Moreover, all of del Bosque's men played club football for longer than the Eredivisie season lasted.

Vicente Del Bosque's men are attempting to be just the third country to win back-to-back World Cups.

There was the looming threat that some of the Spaniards might be ragged and tired from the long -- and mostly triumphant -- season or they hadn't fully "got their heads into" the World Cup test around the corner.

It must still be Van Gaal's fervent hope that some of these elements cause the world champions to play with the imprecision and irregularity which helped hand them defeat in the group opener against Switzerland in South Africa.

On that afternoon, the favourites peppered Diego Benaglio's goal with shots and did more than enough to win two games. But they lost, as one domino theory of defensive glitches -- really two bad decisions and then a little explosion of minor errors -- let Switzerland score, and that was that.

But this week in the run-down southern Brazilian outpost of Curitiba, the majority of those same footballers have given the impression that they are ready for the party and they've brought a bottle.

Sergio Ramos has distilled the essence of those superhero Champions League wins against Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid and let it ooze all over the training pitch.

Koke is performing as if he's been at this level all his life, Xabi Alonso looks massively refreshed and full of fire in his belly. Indeed, not a single one of the squad looks out of touch.

Fernando Torres adds that there's more to take account of, too.

"The advantage of having played here [in the Confederations Cup] last summer is bigger than people think," he said. "It taught us so much about the atmosphere awaiting us (constant booing) the weather, the pitches, the flight of this ball.

"None of that means that we automatically go out and win the tournament, but it's a great help to have this much information to draw on."

Which is just as well, because even if Holland lack top quality experience at the back, they have the weaponry -- athleticism, technical skills and a terrifically shrewd coach -- to give Spain a proper test.

One of the things which will fire up the defending champions, just as much as the usual arithmetic that it's damn difficult to lose the first group game and still qualify for the last 16, is the memory of four years ago.

Never before or since have any of those players suffered such awful gnawing at their nerves as that which was caused by defeat to Switzerland.

It wasn't the embarrassment of losing to a "lowly" international side -- that they simply put down to one bad day at the office.

It was the thought that the greatest generation of footballing talent Spain has ever seen might be sent packing before the end of the group stage and that such golden potential wouldn't ever be fully realized.

None of them want to feel that way again. No chance.

In the lead-up to this World Cup opener, Javi Martinez wasn't the only player to confront this idea. But it was interesting to hear him say that the entire squad is very conscious that Carles Puyol isn't here, that David Villa will retire from international duty at the end of this tournament and that one or two others, little by little, are approaching the end of their Spain careers.

"We want to give them the perfect send off by winning this" was Martinez's stated objective.