World Cup Preview: Group B

Arguably the strongest group in the tournament, Group B contains both finalists from 2010, the only unbeaten team from the tournament in South Africa, and many people’s dark horses.  Spain, the Netherlands and Chile are expected to do battle for qualification while Australia’s contribution to the group has been deemed to be their effect on the others goal difference. Any of the big three will be expecting to qualify, while Australia’s young squad will be hoping to go home having gained a bit of respect from their footballing peers, at least.

SPAIN

The reigning champions will be looking to avoid the hosts in the last 16 meaning they will only be satisfied with first place in group B. They enter the tournament on the back of a lacklustre Confederations Cup campaign where they were largely unimpressive against Italy and were dismantled in the final by the Brazilians. Despite this, they are in impressive form with a strong qualifying record of six wins and two draws from their eight games and have won 21 of their 27 games since the 2010 final.

Diego Costa has been added to the squad giving the team some much needed fire power up front, however it is worth noting there are still doubts over his fitness and ability to play quick football the Spanish way.

The likes of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas are not in the form of their lives with concerns over the former’s ability to play to his potential with the sweltering Brazilian sun glaring down on him. Elsewhere, defensive stalwart Alvaro Arbeloa has been left out of the squad in favour of Cesar Azpillicueta and Juanfran while Iker Casillas is expected to retain his place in goal, despite his lack of regular first team football at club level this season. Their focus on retaining possession should work in their favour and allow them to wear down the opposition at a slow, steady pace. Despite doubts over the form of key players, and the quality of their slick, passing tiki-taka system, Spain should have no trouble qualifying from the group.

HOLLAND

Louis Van Gaal has returned to the Dutch hot seat for a second spell, having stepped down in 2002 after failing to qualify, despite his promise to win the tournament. This time, he has been a bit more cautious, claiming the Dutch have only a 20 per cent chance of reaching the Quarter final stage. His team strolled through a weak qualifying group, winning nine and drawing one of their ten games, however, many are expecting them to flop like they did at Euro 2012, due to a squad filled with youngsters and only a few household names.

Van Gaal has experimented with five at the back in order to counter Chile’s strong attacking prowess, moving away from the 4-3-3 he has used religiously.  The injury to key midfielder Kevin Strootman is a major blow to the already slim hopes the Dutch had of a successful tournament. The side has plenty of goals in it, as well as a few key members of the 2010 team, however, the tough draw and their unpredictability makes it hard for me to see them going far in to the tournament. Should the group go to form, they are expected to meet Brazil in the next round, making a last 16 exit, probably the best they can hope for.

CHILE

Very much the dark horses of Group B, and possibly for the tournament overall, Chile have been the team on everyone’s lips since their domination of England and the Germans a few months ago. Qualifying in third behind Argentina and Colombia, the Chileans are expected to take Group B by storm with their high tempo pressing game. Their manager, Jorge Sampaoli, a disciple of the Marcelo Bielsa school of thinking guided the team to five wins and one draw during his stint in the qualifiers. The side plays with three centre halves, including Cardiff’s Gary Medel and contains plenty of width.

The fitness of talisman Arturo Vidal is key to their success while Alexis Sanchez comes into the tournament on the back of some fine goalscoring form with Barcelona. The value lies in backing goals in their games, having scored in 18 of 20 competitive games since the last world cup, keeping only six clean sheets in the same period. Likewise with the Netherlands, should they qualify, they are expected to meet Brazil in the last 16, probably ending their involvement in the tournament. The availability of key players coupled with their familiarity with the climate gives them the edge over the Netherlands, and should be enough for them to qualify from the group alongside the Spanish.

AUSTRALIA

One of the front runners for worst teams at the tournament, the Australians have been dealt a poor hand, with little to no hope of qualifying. Coach Ange Postecoglu has placed emphasis on using the tournament as preparation for the 2015 Asian cup, which they are due to host. The Greek has called up a young squad, with Tim Cahill being the only surviving member of the old guard. Crystal Palace midfielder Miles Jedinak is also in their ranks, while former Spurs youth teamer Massimo Luongo is one of many youngsters in the squad. Only winning three out of eight qualifiers in the final phase, and relying on a last gasp goal against Iraq to secure qualification, reaching the tournament wasn’t the walk in the park the Aussies have been used to. They are expected to stay true to their virtues of passing out from the back and pressing when not in possession, a system that could leave them liable against the three better teams in the group. It’s difficult to find any positives for the team from down under, the lack of expectation and pressure on their opponents could work in their favour, but I wouldn’t dream of backing them to qualify.

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