Spain (1st in FIFA Rankings, 2nd in ELO) / Netherlands(15th FIFA / 5th ELO) / Chile (14th FIFA / 10th ELO) / Australia (59th FIFA / 32nd ELO)
June 13 Spain v Netherlands
June 13 Chile v Australia
June 18 Australia v Netherlands
June 18 Spain v Chile
June 23 Australia v Spain
June 23 Netherlands v Chile
Group winner v Group A R-up / Group R-up v Group A winner
This is a very exciting group: Spain are defending World and European Champions, the Netherlands were runners up in South Africa, Chile were the most exiting team in the group stages, and ehm, Australia has the platypus. This will be the first World Cup where the finalists from the previous tournament meet in the group stages, and along with Chile, can be considered among the top few teams in the World. In contrast, Australia may be one of the weaker teams going to Brazil.
Spain are true footballing aristocracy now: and not just because coach Vincente del Bosque was made the 1st Marquis of Del Bosque for winning the last championship. Defending champions have most of their players sited in Real, Barca and Athletico Madrid – of the top European teams. Defeat in the Confederation Cup Final to Brazil was disappointing, but with this team, defeat may well make them stronger. Pique will want to bounce back from his sending off in that game, but more importantly, Shakira, Shakira. They have a huge match in the first game against the Netherlands, but losing to the Swiss in the first game didn’t stop them last time. With just 4 defeats since 2010, they will be a tough team to beat, and the team that does will be a firm favorite. Athletico’s Diego Costa will be returning to the land in which he was born, and indeed, twice played for, and this has caused consternation in Brazil – if he can manage the expectations and pressure, he should be one of the top strikers in the tournament. Real Madrid’s youngster Isco has been a major revelation this season, and might be the new energy to lift the team. And, of course, Andrés Iniesta is everyone’s most underrated player on the planet.
The Netherlands may be the great nearly team. No country has seen more World Cup Finals without winning than they. Their World Cup Final manager Bert Van Marwijk has gone now – he only failed to win two competitive games between starting and the last European Championships (one of which was the final against Spain in 2010) – he lost all three games in Kharkiv, and resigned. Back is Louis van Gaal who failed to get there in the 2002 cycle. His results are better this time, but not as good as Van Marwijk, The better results comes partly from experience and partly from having a more settled squad, if not necessarily better. The bulk of the attacking force comes from Arjen Robben, Klaas Jan Huntelaar & Robin Van Persie, who are all 30. He may be playing in Turkey now, but Wesley Sneijder is still a key part of the team. Aside these old stagers, and a few others, many likely squad members will be pretty young, and, pleasing to fans of the Dutch league, they mostly play in their home nation. As with any Dutch team, there are plenty of top young players, like Portuguese born defender Bruno Martins Indi. For my money, they lack depth beyond the first team, but that is a strong first team
Prior to Marcelo Bielsa, Chile didn’t really have a style – traditionally, they attempted to copy Brazil or Argentina or Germany. Bielsa noted that their players tended to be shorter and faster, and had the teams playing a high pressing game attacking along the wings. This approach to the game reaped success for the national team, and was adopted throughout the nation. Continuing under Jorge Sampaoli, another Argentine, and an adherent to his approach, they have been beaten only 3 times since he took charge 15 games ago: each away from home by a single goal to Peru, Brazil and Germany. Last time out, they cashed out at the round of 16, beaten 3-0 by Brazil. They’ll want to improve on the last 16 this time, and but if they emerge, they could well meet Brazil again. Barcelona’s Alexis Sánchez will be a key to their success – even though he is only 25, he’s their most experienced player after ‘keeper Claudio Bravo, and is well on course to being Chile’s greatest ever. He is just one of many in the squad who were a part of the 2007 Under 20 World Cup squad that finished 3rd. That tournament’s second top scorer was Arturo Vidal, according to some the most complete midfielder in the world, and was Juventus’ player of the year last year. Followers of the EPL might be familiar with Cardiff City’s Gary Medel, also a member of that 2007 squad. A top grade defensive midfielder, he can play practically and role, and is known in Chile as Pitbull.
So things look pretty bleak for Australia here. Notionally the second team to qualify, and notionally an Asian team, they are notionally competing in this group. Any of the others in the group could be considered a decent bet for semi finals: in contrast, it’s hard to see Australia scoring, especially with a misfiring Tim Cahill their only experienced forward. It doesn’t really help that the manager who got them to the World Cup was sacked for two poor showings in friendlies against France and Brazil, either. Ange Postecoglou has been a fairly popular choice with many in Australia, as only the second full time manager to be Australian in the past 20 years, and the first one to guide them in a World Cup. It will be tough for him though: no longer are the best players getting time on the pitch for high profile clubs, and the Luke Wilkshires and Mark Brescianos of the squad are getting old too. Captain Mile Jedinak will be one of the team’s pillars and he’ll be as busy as anyone in Brazil, regardless of how the rest of the team do. If he gets a chance FC Luzern’s Oliver Bozanic could jump to a better club from this, but I cannot imagine any of the squad getting much chance to impress in this group.
Being Irish, Martin French will have a different perspective on the World Cup: by all means challenge him on twitter @bluebeardrex. This article incorporates elements of Martin’s column for the Waterford United matchday program with new material specifically for The Coopers.