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Jun 12, 2014

Spain vs. Netherlands: 50-50 Challenge

SpainSpain
NetherlandsNetherlands
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5
FT
Match 3
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ESPN's World Cup crew discuss if Spain wins will they be the best team ever.

Our expert bloggers will give their thoughts ahead of each game, so as Spain take on Netherlands in Group B on Friday, Rob Train (Spain) and Elko Born (Netherlands) are your guides.

What's at stake?

Rob Train: Chile and Australia will have their say in the group standings, but odds are on Spain and the Netherlands to progress to the last 16. In which order is of vital importance: second place will probably mean a matchup against Brazil, the host and Cup favorite. There hasn't traditionally been a rivalry between the two nations, but battle was joined in Johannesburg four years ago when then-manager Bert van Marwijk's side tried to kick Spain clean out of Soccer City Stadium.

Mark van Pummel may have retired but Xabi Alonso will remember the studs of Nigel de Jong with little fondness. The rematch will be cagier but revenge will be on Netherlands' mind, while Vicente del Bosque's defending champions will aim to control possession and secure an early advantage in Group B.

Elko Born: Netherlands' very first fixture is a repeat of the 2010 World Cup final. For players like Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie, who were all there in 2010, the memory of Andres Iniesta's winning goal in extra time is undoubtedly a great motivator.

What's more, they could do with at least a draw ahead of their third and possibly decisive group match with Chile. Should they somehow manage to get a sneaky win, that would greatly help them in finishing first in the group and thus possibly avoiding Brazil in the next round.

X factor

RTIt has to be Diego Costa, simply because the rest of Spain's squad is so well known on the international stage. Of the starting lineup in the 2010 final, eight likely will be on the field when the game kicks off in Salvador. The Champions League and stints in La Liga have bred familiarity among the likes of Robben, Sneijder and van Persie with Spain's Real and Barça contingent, but few if any of Louis van Gaal's back line will have encountered Costa in the flesh before.

Where, when and exactly how del Bosque intends to deploy his heavy battery remains to be seen, but with Aston Villa's Ron Vlaar the most experienced man in a defence largely drawn from the Eredivisie, Costa, although unproven at this level, is undoubtedly the player the Netherlands' rear guard will be least looking forward to lining up against.

EB: With the opening match against the reigning world champions in mind, Louis van Gaal changed his formation from a trusted 4-3-3 to an unusual 5-3-2 just a few weeks ago. This decision was based largely on the 5-3-2 formation's capacity to accommodate the Netherlands' three best players: Sneijder, Robben and van Persie.

From those three, Robben especially will be looked at to score the goals. In 2010, the winger missed a clear-cut chance to score when he broke through Spain's high defensive line. In this match, Netherlands will look to give Robben a chance to redeem himself by releasing him on the counter.

Diego Costa is in with a chance of the golden boot at this summer's World Cup

Fear factor

RT: But for the outstretched leg of Iker Casillas in the 2010 final, van Marwijk may well have been the man handed a heraldic title for lifting the World Cup. Robben remains the Netherlands' most destructive player, in the football sense at least, and has been given free rein by van Gaal to roam across the front line in tandem with van Persie.

In warm-up games against Ghana and Wales he started on the left and right of a front two but rarely stayed there, scoring one and assisting Jeremain Lens for the second against Wales manager Chris Coleman's side. The Bayern Munich winger will try his luck against Jordi Alba and whoever gets the nod on the right, be it Juanfran or Cesar Azpilicueta. Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique will be required to screen both fullbacks to keep the marauding Robben in check. The pace and trickery of Lens and Memphis Depay will provide another test when they are called from the bench.

EB: Spain's out-and-out striker Diego Costa will be perceived as the opposition's main goal-scoring threat. The main fear factor, though, lies in their ability to function as an all-conquering collective. Many teams have miserably failed against tiki-taka, and the Netherlands fear that a similar fate will befall them once again.

Key battle

RT: While not going head-to-head in the sense of a striker and a centre-back, the key battle in Salvador will be fought between the beating heart and brains of both sides: Sneijder and Xavi. Sneijder is the vital component of van Gaal's experimental 5-3-2 and the Oranje's more traditional 4-3-3, operating behind Robben and van Persie and searching for the defence-splitting pass to release them.

Xavi's area of influence is lower down the pitch, but his ability to control the rhythm of the game is the basis of Spain's system. Both sides will aim to get the ball to the feet of their two most-capped players as often as possible, and the amount of time and space afforded to either will be a decisive factor.

EB: Nigel de Jong versus Spain's midfield. This tough-tackling defensive midfielder will be pitted against Spain's impressive array of attacking midfielders who undoubtedly will be aware of his assertiveness (which sometimes borders on aggressiveness).

Alonso, for example, will not have fond memories of facing de Jong in the 2010 final, when he was famously karate-kicked in the chest by his opponent. Despite his questionable reputation, de Jong's role is important. While Netherlands' five-man defence will sit deep, de Jong will press, and his ability to do so successfully will influence Oranje's chances greatly.

Prediction

RT: Neither side is going to go all-out and risk exposure in an opening group stage match, so goals will not be raining on Salvador, especially if van Gaal opts for five at the back. However, both teams possess enough firepower to exploit even the merest defensive lapse, so 1-1 sounds about right.

EB: Spain will win 2-1. Netherlands may sneak one on the counter but Spain will probably get past Oranje's expanded defensive line at least once. Ultimately, the reigning world champions will do what they have to do.

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