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Five Aside: Matchday 12

Five Aside Jun 23, 2014
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 Posted by Rob Train
Jun 9, 2014

Spain's World Cup predictions

After four years of waiting, the time has come. Another World Cup is here, and our bloggers across all 32 competing countries have each predicted the fate that awaits their team. The country's Outlook gives a general view of its situation ahead of the tournament, while Pitfalls takes a look at any potential problems. Each blogger will also predict the top scorer and breakout star and suggest how far that nation can go.

OUTLOOK

Head coach Vicente del Bosque has not suffered any major losses to his squad -- unlike France and Germany -- in the run-up to the tournament and picked some fairly soft warm-up matches against Bolivia and El Salvador to ease his players into gear. Rarely is anything useful learned from friendlies, and this is even truer for Spain, who have often been accused -- and not without good reason -- of rarely taking them seriously. But friendlies are one thing. Competitive matches are quite another, and del Bosque's record speaks for itself: 86 matches, 70 wins, eight draws and eight losses, five of which were friendlies. Furthermore, Spain haven't conceded a goal other than from the penalty spot in the knockout stages of the past three major international tournaments. Del Bosque's side have been ready for Brazil since 2010.

PITFALLS

Spain's problem is the sort that other countries would love to have: where to squeeze so much talent into just 10 outfield positions. If del Bosque is mulling anything, it is who to start up top and whether to go with a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3. In the case of the former, Diego Costa would seem to be the obvious choice, with either Fernando Torres, David Villa or Cesc Fabregas as a false nine, slotting into the latter. Costa is something of an unknown quantity having joined the national team only this year, and his outing against Italy in March didn't set any fireworks off. Del Bosque will have to decide whether to chance his arm on Costa -- who will be more dangerous from the bench I feel -- or stick to the tried and tested. In that case, Torres and Villa (who hasn't scored since March) may need to rediscover the form that secured Spain their last three major titles.

STAR SCORER

I'm going out on a limb here and plumping for Sergio Ramos. Del Bosque is likely to rotate his front line from game to game simply because he has the personnel and tactical flexibility to field any one of several different attacking models. Ramos arguably had his finest spell in a Real shirt after the winter break, culminating in six goals in the final seven games of the season -- two against Bayern Munich and the all-important equalizer in the Champions League final against Atlético among them. Ramos is a nuisance on set pieces and has the speed and desire to get forward to plunder goals from the second line of attack. Spain won all of their knockout-phase games 1-0 at the last World Cup and averaged the same in the quarters and semis at Euro 2012 until Italy rolled over in the final. Three or four goals will probably be enough to be top scorer for Spain, and Ramos is more than capable of that.

WILD CARD

After sagely predicting that Dani Carvajal would shine in Brazil a few weeks ago, it seems only fair to mention the player that nicked his spot, Cesar Azpilicueta. The right of Spain's defence is the least experienced area; both Juanfran and Azpilicueta have six caps each. Of course, Ramos can play at right back if needed, but in his current form it would be madness to move him from the centre. So it's a straight duel between the Atletico and Chelsea fullbacks, and one Azpilicueta should win. He managed to shove Ashley Cole aside at Chelsea playing at left back, and effectively ended his England career. Quick, agile and with a decent eye for a cross, Azpilicueta started against both Italy and Bolivia and will likely do so against Holland. He will also be very useful indeed if anything should befall Jordi Alba, as del Bosque decided to leave Alberto Moreno out of the squad.

PREDICTION: Semfinals

Ah, Holland. It isn't the easiest game with which to kick off a World Cup campaign and the players have been saying this week that a positive result against the Oranje is paramount. Spain has started slowly at the last two tournaments, losing to Switzerland in 2010 and drawing with Italy at Euro 2012. They cannot afford to do likewise here; the team that finishes runner-up in Group B will in all likelihood play Brazil in the last 16. The possibility of slipping up against Chile is also very real, and they earned a 2-2 draw in Geneva last September against the Spaniards. If Brazil are avoided, Spain shouldn't have too many problems against Mexico, Croatia or Cameroon, and then would not meet Luiz Felipe Scolari's side until the final. Possible last eight opponents could include England, Italy, Uruguay, Colombia and Ivory Coast; the semifinals bring the best of Groups E to H into play, among them Argentina and Germany, where I foresee their exit via penalties. Spain's fortunes, though, all depend on that first game against Holland.