Evaluation continues vs. El Salvador
Spain has just one friendly match remaining ahead of the all-important opening Group B game against old acquaintance Holland, 90 minutes for Spain coach Vicente del Bosque to run the rule over his players with a view to his best starting lineup to take on the Oranje. Xabi Alonso noted on Wednesday that Louis van Gaal's team is young and with the bit between its teeth, and failure by La Roja to take three points will leave the defending champion "in a very uncomfortable position."
As opening games of a World Cup campaign go, the Netherlands are about as tough as they come. But in 2010, Spain kicked off their campaign against a supposedly soft touch in Switzerland and lost 1-0; avoiding defeat is preferable, but nothing will be decided in Salvador on June 13.
Victory would place Spain in a very comfortable position, although Alonso was right to state that there are no easy games and that both Chile and Australia can cause Spain problems. Del Bosque will approach the Netherlands match as though it is 2010 in Johannesburg, but which is his strongest side?
In defence, there is little debate other than whether Juanfran or Cesar Azpilicueta should start on the right. The rest of the back line is set in stone: Iker Casillas between the sticks, Sergio Ramos and Gerard Piqué in the middle and Jordi Alba on the left. Azpilicueta had a standout season for Chelsea and has experienced football in three leagues. Juanfran, though, was remolded as a fullback by Atletico boss Diego Simeone after playing most of his career on the right wing, and that could be a crucial advantage against Holland.
Van Gaal unveiled a 5-3-2 formation in Holland's recent friendlies against Ecuador and Ghana, suggesting much of the battle will be fought on the flanks if Holland so choose, deploying wing-backs and switching to five in midfield when in possession. In Daryl Janmaat and Daley Blind, Holland have quick runners who can move up in support of the attacking wide players; whether it is Jeremain Lens, Memphis Depay or Arjen Robben -- who played in a more central role against Ecuador -- the speed in Van Gaal's side is electric. Robben's free role in attack will provide Spain's defence with a real headache.
Spain's formation has evolved since the successful European Championship campaign of 2008, when Luis Aragones displayed a full range of lineups from 4-1-3-2 to 4-1-4-1 via 4-4-2. Del Bosque has since largely inclined toward 4-3-3, which was the most used formation by Spain in World Cup qualifying and his preferred system throughout last year's Confederations Cup. However, in Spain's last two friendlies, Del Bosque used 4-2-3-1, suggesting he sees a role for either Fernando Torres or David Villa against the Dutch.
It will be instructive to see what he pulls out of his hat against El Salvador on Saturday, but where Diego Costa fits in to the scheme will remain unknown. The Atletico striker is still nursing a muscle strain and is unlikely to be risked before the tournament, where he might be best deployed as an impact substitute given his ability to unsettle defences with his direct running and physical presence.
Del Bosque's midfield will almost certainly be the same one that started the 2010 final; Sergio Busquets and Alonso will anchor with Xavi Hernandez pulling the strings. The Barcelona maestro has not had a stellar season by his ridiculously high standards, but neither did his club as a whole. But against Bolivia, the No. 8 clearly enjoyed having so many options in front of him and pinged the ball about with aplomb.
Andres Iniesta is a shoo-in to start on the left of the attack, and the energy of Pedro could be useful on the right as Spain's wide men will be drawn into plenty of defensive duty when Holland mass in midfield, countering five with five. Even should Holland choose to revert to their more standard 4-3-3, this match will still not be one for lovers of a free-flowing feast of goals. Neither side will be willing to afford the other a great deal of space, and a draw would be far from disastrous for both.
What remains unclear is what part -- if any -- Torres has to play in Del Bosque's plans. Throughout the qualifying campaign, Cesc Fabregas and David Villa of the current squad shared duty in the middle of a front three while the Chelsea striker did not feature at all. Torres' recall to the side after almost a year was something of a surprise, but Del Bosque's lineups against Italy and Bolivia support the idea that he is considering playing with a point man against Holland rather than employing the false nine system. Torres started against Bolivia and scored from the spot, but he also hoofed a sitter into row Z. It will be no surprise to see Villa handed the role against El Salvador as Del Bosque weighs his options in search of his starting 11 for the World Cup.