Winning this group is a necessity for any team with designs on reaching the latter stages. Second place almost certainly will mean having to play Brazil in the second round in Belo Horizonte. That allows little margin for error for two heavily favoured teams who meet in the group’s first match. What a scene-setter Spain versus Netherlands provides, and then both must hold off the tough challenge of Chile. Finishing at the top also means that Brazil cannot be met until the final in Rio.
The leading storyline is obvious. When Netherlands were drawn to face Spain, there were audible gasps in the auditorium. The second day of the tournament will see probably the tastiest encounter of the group stage, a restaging of 2010’s final.
Spain’s run of success cannot last forever. Age might be catching up with them. They did not look wholly comfortable with conditions in last year’s Confederations Cup, and were especially drained by having to play in the heat of Fortaleza in the semifinal. This looks a tougher group than that in 2010; neither they nor the Dutch can afford to be caught cold. Lose their step early, and Chile should be ready to step in. And beyond that, Brazil likely lie in wait.
Spain, Chile, Netherlands, Australia
Spain: They already have breached new horizons by winning three championships in a row. To win in Brazil would take them beyond immortality. They would have to become the first European team to win in the Americas, and the first team to retain the title since Brazil in 1962. One thing in their favour is that they cannot meet the host until the final if they win the group as expected. Brazil humiliated them in the final of the Confederations Cup. That suggested a fresh vulnerability and the first signs of a dimming of the light. This should be the final stand for Spain’s history-makers.
Netherlands: The previous time the World Cup was held in South America, they lost in the final. They return with a similar status, and have something to prove after their behaviour in 2010’s final besmirched what had previously been a fine tournament. Coach Louis van Gaal has at least made up for the embarrassment of failing to make it to 2002’s final, but in his second spell, he is working with a squad that is undergoing a regeneration. Euro 2012 was an utter disaster. Will they fall out or flourish? The eternal Dutch question.
Chile: In 2010, they were a delight to watch, and continue to be so. Coach Jorge Sampaoli has revived the practices of Argentine compatriot Marcelo Bielsa, and his team are a danger to anyone, as England found out last month at Wembley. Barcelona star Alexis Sanchez is the key man, just as he was four years ago, and he is finding form at his club after two seasons of doubt. Premier League followers will recognise Gary Medel, Cardiff City’s dastardly anchorman. Three wins from four secured their place in the final 32 after Sampaoli replaced the more defensive Claudio Borghi.
Australia: Being in the final 32 is becoming a happy habit after those years in the wilderness from 1974 to 2006. They enter their third straight World Cup with a third different coach and after some upheaval. Unlike the previous two times, the coach will not be a Dutchman, or a German, after Holger Osieck was removed following consecutive friendly defeats to Brazil and France. In came Ange Postecoglou, who is the first A-League boss to get the national job, and the first Australian to manage them in the World Cup. He and his team have been handed a truly daunting task.
Best individual battle: Gerard Pique vs. Alexis Sanchez
Two Barcelona colleagues who know all about each other, will meet up in Rio at the Maracana in their teams’ second match. Sanchez caused all sorts of trouble for Spain when the two met in Pretoria in a group game in 2010, as he made his reputation as one of the world’s most sought-after talents. Pique and Carles Puyol narrowly held him off then, but Spain’s defence does not seem as tight as it once did. Sanchez, excellent at Wembley three weeks ago, has been in fine form, as he finally steps from the shadow of Lionel Messi.
Best game: Spain vs. Netherlands
Salvador is treated to a reunion of the protagonists from 2010 World Cup final. It is to be hoped that the match is played in a better spirit than last time, and it seems highly unlikely that Howard Webb will be given the job of officiating the occasion. There will be plenty of survivors from Soccer City on show, with Andres Iniesta -- scorer of the winner in Johannesburg -- most likely at the centre again. Perhaps this being a group opener -- habitually cagey occasions -- will take the sting out of it. Spain have begun their past two tournaments slowly, so Netherlands may profit from that.
X factor: Fast start needed
The opening match should set the tone. Which Netherlands shows up, and are Spain able to switch back into tournament mode? Chile, more used to the climate and working well as a unit, may come between the both of them. The Europeans might have to consider that they have not been forced to play anywhere where the climate is too restrictive or too far to travel. Australia have to be seen as the whipping boy and fighting for pride, but a shock draw against the expected qualifiers may let in Chile. And there is no greater variable in world football than that Dutch temperament.
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