On paper, this looks like a fearsome threesome; Australia being the odd-ones out. We have the winners of their last three competitive international tournaments, including this tournament four years ago in South Africa, the side they beat in the final there – the Netherlands – and Chile, darkhorses on their own continent and thrust into the limelight following their 2-0 triumph at Wembley in November.
How on Earth Spain are being overlooked to clinch their second World Cup and considered by some to be also-rans, is astonishing. Or is it? Tiki-taka seems to be on its way out, as Barcelona ended the season trophy-less for the first time since 2008. However, Real Madrid captured the Copa Del Rey and the UEFA Champions League titles, and will have three of the longest-serving players in the squad; 377 caps between goalkeeper and captain Iker Casillas, defender Sergio Ramos and midfielder Xabi Alonso. They have to possess a live chance of becoming only the third side to defend their crown, after Brazil in 1958 and Italy in 1938. Spain were brutally taken apart at last year’s Confederations Cup at the scene of this year’s finals, by the rampant hosts. Neymar was on fire scoring four times in five games, collecting the Golden Ball award for the tournament’s best player, which effectively earned him his controversial move to Barcelona. He wasn’t exactly in supreme form in that Barca side, which failed to peg back eventual La Liga winners, Atletico Madrid. The national side have lost just six times in games since their 2010 triumph and retained their European version in that time, but something tells me that a few countries will be wise to their methods this time around and a semi-final place looks best.
The aforementioned Dutch will be champing at the bit to gain revenge for four years ago, when Andres Iniesta’s extra-time winner (only his 8th goal for his country) to crush the Oranje dream and leave them as the perrenial bridesmaids. The Netherlands have been to the World’s biggest match three times, only to be beaten twice in additional time and the other after taking a second minute lead from the penalty spot. Their current squad is a real mixture of youth and experience, with six players aged 22 or younger and nine with caps in single-figures. The familiar names of Wesley Sneijder, Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben are present, but it’s the new faces of the defensive quartet, Bruno Martins Indi, Stefan de Vrij, Terence Kongolo and Joel Veltman alongside their Feyenoord team-mate, midfielder Jordy Clasie, which adds the surprise factor to new Manchester United manager, Louis van Gaal’s selection. If they can get something from their opening clash with Spain, then they should qualify. But lose that and the clash with Chile on June 23 becomes a must win. That will be no easy feat.
Chile are 40/1 to win the World Cup in 2014, they are 14/1 to be the top South American team, but 4/5 to qualify from Group B. That shows how close this section is and as mentioned, their game against the Netherlands has all the hallmarks of a fixture which will decide who finishes second. However, should they beat Australia handsomely in their first game and Spain and the Netherlands draw, Jorge Sampaoli’s men will be under less pressure to take three points from the match afains the latter. I mention this first, because a lot of people will only be looking at Chile if Spain avoid defeat against van Gaal’s outfit. It seems unfair to put all their chances on that one game, but as proved when England where beaten 2-0 at Wembley last November, Chile are coming along for the ride. They play to a quick tempo and in the humidity of Brazil, not many sides are going to be singing from the same hymnsheet. As a side already acclimatised to the weather in South America, they will need to make little, if any adjustments to their tactics. I see Chile fully causing upsets in this group and if not just to the Netherlands and Spain, then possibly to their knockout opponents further down the line.
Unfortunately for Australia, I don’t foresee this being one of their better tournaments. But they already seem to be resigned to this and have picked a squad which fits in well with that theory. I’m not dismissing them disrespectfully, they are doing things the right way by picking a youthful band of players and one which will look to gain experience and then comeback stronger in four years. The Aussies are going through a bit of a transitional period and they have more players from their home A-League than any other division around the world. There’s just three men over the age of 30 – Mark Bresciano, Tim Cahill and the little-known Adelaide United goalkeeper Eugene Galekovic – and the six defenders have only 42 caps between them. Not exactly the most positive sign for anyone looking for upsets. The only upset will be in terms of sadness for the Socceroo fans.
follow me on twitter @Dejonefc