The World Cup Draw regularly leaves countries either ecstatic or slighted depending on their group placements in the upcoming tournament; there can never be a perfect balance of competition in each group. Yet following the draw for the 2014 tourney, the striking lack of any semblance of evenly distributed teams bordered on atrocity. Oddly-skewed FIFA rankings don’t paint an accurate picture–just a basic lookover reveals some peculiarities. Powerhouses have been squeezed into Groups B, D, and G, increasing the prototypical “group of death” threefold. The aftermath of the questionable group arrangement involves toughening the task of predictions, and unfortunately includes premature elimination of teams that deserve a longer stay in Brazil. Group B presents this type of situation, featuring the final two teams from the 2010 World Cup–Spain and the Netherlands–mashed together with an emerging South American force in Chile. With a group already stuffed to its competitive brim with just three teams, Australia quickly becomes the odd man out, and can only hope to dent the other three’s aspirations by catching them off guard in a “trap game”.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: Spain, though it will field considerable challenges from the Dutch and the Chileans, should win all three of its matches. Even though the Spaniards could mirror their slow start from 2010, one that the Netherlands would seemingly take quick advantage of, two developments detract from the possibility of Spain gaining anything less than three points in their opening match. For one, Spain will enter as an even stronger team than four years back (a growth that seems baffling yet likely for a reigning champ). Secondly, the Dutch have shown signs of decline and aren’t nearly the team of such caliber seen in South Africa, a slump that will figure importantly later in assessing whether they advance out of the group.
Drawing attention back to the Spanish national team roster, there’s simply a ridiculous amount of dynamic playmakers–their impact on a match bolstered by how they all flow in unison–that will take the pitch. The mid-fielding group, albeit only combining for one goal in WC qualifiers, contains a variety of consistent and top-tier performers, hailing from the world’s best clubs. Their familiarity with each other results in unparalleled on-field chemistry–a phenomenon that encompasses the attacking and defending lines as well, but to a lesser degree–since many actually play together in their clubs; just with respect to the midfield, four players come from Barcelona, so it’s no wonder two of those, Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez, act as cornerstones on the national team.
Thus, the Spanish team will once again mesmerize (they will play the most beautiful style in Brazil), pass (utilize the “tiki-taka” approach, characterized by short passing and movement), and possess (possession percentages will continue unequaled) more than any other team in the tournament, en route to gradually overpowering the Group B opposition.
Perhaps the team’s sole disadvantage would expose itself on set pieces, as the Spanish defenders collectively lack the adequate bulk and stature to overcome imposing forwards crashing the net. But even then, Spain will yield few opportunities like this for opponents to capitalize on, as overall the back lines plays resourcefully and with constant pressure. Moreover, early-game deficits shouldn’t cause much trouble, as domination of the ball–and subsequently a higher amount of created chances–is inherent to Spain’s character as a team.
The right to play Brazil
You can’t be shortsighted in what soon becomes a knockout tournament, so far all of the Netherlands’s and Chile’s struggles to advance to the second round, those efforts could come in vain after a bout with the powerful hosts (assuming the likely scenario of Spain and Brazil winning their groups). Yet for the Chilean team, unlike the Dutch, an end to their tourney in the round of 16 might not be their highest of hopes, but definitely satisfying, and hardly demoralizing like it would be for their primary group counterparts.
Akin to the situation in Group A, the second spot in the round of 16 will most likely be clinched in the third set of group games. After experiencing both ends of the spectrum of World Cup competition (Spain and Australia), the Netherlands and Chile will meet on June 23rd in Sao Paulo, a trip to the second round hanging in the balance.
For Chile, which has increasingly become a darkhorse candidate in World Cup discussions, its identity centers on the offensive attack. A proven dangerous striker, in Barcelona-man Alexis Sanchez, and a tenaciously dominant midfielder that has gained consideration as one of the best at his position during his time in Juventus, in Arturo Vidal, drive the prolific goal-scoring charge. Yet balance also personifies the offense of La Roja: six players with multiple goals and 11 with at least one during the qualifiers demonstrate the wide-ranging options the team will field, a strength which will become incredibly useful when the Sanchez/Vidal duo draw the majority of defensive attention.
The back line appears as the most pressing weakness for the Chileans at the moment, as the team devotes most of its efforts to attacking on the other side of the pitch. The aggression and ability to retreat to a defensive role of midfielder Vidal will minimize but not entirely erase the ramifications from a porous defense.
Breezing through its UEFA qualifiers, the Netherlands team is dotted with offensive weapons that combined for a towering 34 goals in the qualification process. World-class and internationally-tested scorers Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben, and Wesley Sneijder will once again form the basis for the attack, and will challenge opposing goalkeepers like no other team.
Yet just like with the Chileans, worries begin to arise when evaluating the Dutch defense; with the midfielders stationed upfield more often than not (an absence of a quality two-way MF), it leaves a very young back line–that lacks experience on the European club-level–to defend the goal, in what could ultimately undo the team as a whole.
With that in mind, it seems Chile can more effectively exploit this common weakness between the two teams, than the other way around. However fluid, flashy, and forceful the Dutch may be, they also exude a bit of arrogance, and as a result could underestimate their Chilean foes; La Roja will always have more to prove than the Netherlands, and will surely play with more determination and spirit. Furthermore, although winning nine of 10 qualifying matches (and drawing another) looks sublime on paper, the team’s performance really just masks their EURO 2012 debacle (losing all three of their games, including an opening one to Denmark). No other UEFA qualifier opponent that the Netherlands faced ranked better than 30th, indicating that the last time this team saw WC-like competition, it crumbled. The Dutch will play not to lose, and the Chileans will play to win; when the teams finally clash, expect offensive fireworks, and for Chile to come exploding out of the gates and eventually trounce their counterparts, securing their entry into South American soccer’s elite.
*Update as of June 7th: I’ve swayed back and forth on whether the Netherlands or Chile would advance several times, so don’t rule out any future modifications. Although Chile’s attack deserves all the praise it will get later in the month, it takes a definite backseat to that of the Dutch; in other words, upon looking back on my Group B evaluation, I wildly underestimated the team’s offensive potency. While the defense can be exposed, RVP and Co. can easily counteract a poor back line showing, as the Dutch attack itself should have a field day with a more dubious Chilean defense; the Netherlands, as long as it musters all of its effort in the game, should have the upper hand in an offensive shootout. Furthermore, it would be historically discordant that Chile would follow its exact path from the 2010 World Cup of finishing second to Spain in the group stages and falling to Brazil in the next round. Conversely, it seems all too fitting that the Netherlands would advance to the round of 16 to play the hosts: a victory for the Brazilians over a team that shocked them out of the WC four years ago in the quarterfinals would be a necessary component in Brazil’s road to redemption.
Key match: Netherlands vs. Chile, June 23rd
1) Spain (9 points)
2) The Netherlands (6 points)
3) Chile (3 points)
4) Australia (0 points)