Eyes initially bulged after FIFA assembled Group B at the 2014 World Cup Draw last December. That glee should have subsided once people remembered this is the 2014 World Cup, not 2010.
On paper, Group B is one of the strongest groups. It features Spain and the Netherlands, finalists in 2010, a dogged Chile and regular participant Australia. However, upon closer inspection, we fear Group B won’t match its billing.
Australia. Cannon fodder. It might sound harsh, but it’s not. It’s fair. The Socceroos are inexperienced and short on quality. Head coach Ange Postecoglou only took charge of the national team in October 2013, and most of the Europe-based players who admirably represented the country at World Cups in 2006 and 2010 no longer are available (or useful) to him. Australia will lose all three group-stage games (but we wouldn’t mind seeing another outcome for shock value).
Chile is one of South America’s stronger teams and should be confident that it can reach the knockout rounds. To guarantee passage, it must defeat Australia in its opening game, then beat either Spain or the Netherlands. Chile has enough class and experience to knock off one of the European giants, but both games will be tricky for “La Roja.”
The Dutch don’t possess the star power they had in previous major tournaments, but that could play into the hands of head coach Louis van Gaal, who builds successful teams by mixing young and old talent. If the Netherlands earn a surprise point against Spain in its first game and beat Australia as expected, it would have all the momentum heading into the potential decider against Chile. That scenario seems unlikely, and we’re expecting the Dutch to fall in the group stage by the slimmest of margins (goal differential).
Spain, the reigning world and European champion, has class, experience and belief to spare, which should carry it through the group stage. In fact, Spain’s second unit probably could reach the knockout rounds. “La Furia Roja” must avoid a slow start or early disaster as it opens with its toughest games. If it does, it should cruise into the next phase of the competition.
Group B Schedule (all times ET)
Spain vs. Netherlands, 3 p.m., June 13
Chile vs. Australia, 6 p.m., June 13
Netherlands vs. Australia, noon, June 19
Spain vs. Chile, 3 p.m., June 19
Spain vs. Australia and Netherlands vs. Chile, noon, June 19
Spain-Netherlands is a rematch of the 2010 World Cup final. Time has some luster off the matchup, but it’s still one worth watching. Spain-Chile will be exciting, as the Chileans will see this as a chance to announce themselves as contenders. Netherlands-Chile should decide which team advances out of Group B. The game will be fast, competitive and critically important.
Players To Watch
— Spain’s players have won everything at club and international levels in recent years, so it’s hard not to pick all of them. Nevertheless, we’ll highlight Andres Iniesta, who can cement himself as a World Cup legend, and forward Diego Costa, the Brazilian-born striker who controversially chose to represent Spain in late 2013.
— Chile’s Arturo Vidal is one of the best two-way midfielders in the world. Vidal had knee surgery May 7, but Chile says he is making an “amazing” recovery. Attackers Alexis Sanchez and Eduardo Vargas are under-appreciated at the club level, but they can become icons by firing in Brazil.
— The Netherlands could struggle defensively but should have little problem scoring goals with Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie and Wesley Sneijder in the lineup and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar coming off the bench. The Dutch might not go far, but it will be fun to watch them attack.
Predicted Order Of Finish
Spain (9 points), Chile (4 points), Netherlands (4 points), Australia (0 points)