As we approach the start of the 2014 FIFA World Cup on June 12, the Sports Unbiased Crew will be releasing guides to help make better sense of what you watch as the world’s best soccer players converge on Brazil this summer. Check in regularly as we preview the eight groups, 32 teams, and key players that will play an integral role in determining the next world champion.
How much longer can Spain’s run of success last? They have won the last three major tournaments they have entered (Euro 2008, 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012) and are looking to become the first repeat World Cup champions since Brazil in 1962. To do that though, they will have to become the first European nation to win a World Cup in the Americas.
However, Spain are in a much tougher group in 2014 than they were in 2010. There will be no time allowed to ease their way into the tournament, as their first group match will be against another European powerhouse, the Netherlands. If any of these two favorites should slip up, then look for Chile (a popular dark-horse) to take advantage of their misfortune. Rounding off the group are Australia, who are considered long shots.
The pressure will be on the two European heavyweights to win the group, as the runner-up will likely have to play Brazil in the second round. Let’s now look quickly at each of the six matches that will determine the group standings and predict how the group will shake out. (All times Eastern.)
Spain v. Netherlands/Salvador (June 13/3:00pm)
Salvador will host the rematch of the 2010 World Cup final. That game was not played in the best of spirits, and is best remembered for the malicious tackling as well as the poor officiating by Howard Webb. This game won’t carry the same intensity, but there is still plenty to play for. A win for either team should put them in pole position to top the group. On the other hand, a loss would mean that they’re in a dogfight with Chile for second place. Remember, the second placed team in this group will most likely face host-nation Brazil whereas the winner can only face Brazil in the final. Spain have had a reputation of starting off slowly during these big tournaments. They will not be allowed to get away with that in this group. After the Netherlands, the champions play Chile next. With neither side looking to put the wrong foot award, look for both teams to play this one cautiously.
PREDICTION: 0-0 Draw
Chile v. Australia/Cuiabá (June 13/6:00pm)
If you’re looking for the dark horse in Group B — and the entire tournament for that matter — then Chile would be a popular pick. La Roja struggled when Marcelo Bielsa stepped down as national manager in 2011, but are back to playing their best brand of football under new manager (and Bielsa disciple) Jorge Sampaoli, losing just three of their 15 matches since Sampaoli took over. They will be favored over Australia, who many have picked to finish bottom of the group. However, they are well known for their grit and will make up for what they lack in quality with maximum effort. The result will be closer than what many will anticipate.
PREDICTION: 2-1 Chile
Australia v. Netherlands/Porto Alegre (June 18/12:00pm)
Don’t expect much of a letdown from the Netherlands following their much-hyped opening match against Spain. The Dutch should be determined to atone for their embarrassing showing in Euro 2012 where they exited after the group stages without winning a single match. That determination showed during the 2014 World Cup qualifying round when they went undefeated in their group (nine wins and one draw) to earn automatic qualification. They won’t overlook the Socceroos in this match and will look to score as many goals as possible — as goal differential could ultimately be what decides who wins this group.
PREDICTION: 3-0 Netherlands
Spain v. Chile/Rio de Janeiro (June 18/3:00pm)
Chile is one of the teams that can cause Spain trouble because of their counterattacking abilities. Spain likes to dominate possession with short quick passes, masters of the tiki-taka. Chile will look to suck the defending champions in defensively and then hit them with their speed on the break. Will it be effective? Given that tiki-taka has not been effective this past season (compared to seasons’ past), La Roja should fancy their chances. Another advantage for Chile should be the weather, as the Europeans should struggle to adapt to the hot, humid conditions in Rio de Janeiro. A very tricky situation for the champions, to say the least.
PREDICTION: 1-1 Draw
Australia v. Spain/Curitiba (June 23/12:00pm)
Spain will be coming into their final group match versus the Socceroos not only in need of three points, but looking to score as many goals as possible. This is not their nature, however. Spain have been known to field starting elevens without a true striker in the lineup in the past, such is their confidence in tiki-taka football. They should win this match against an inferior opponent, but it will not be by as many goals as one might expect.
PREDICTION: 2-0 Spain
Netherlands v. Chile/São Paolo (June 23/12:00pm)
The weather in Sao Paolo is expected to be much more comfortable than Rio, so the Netherlands should not have much difficulties adapting to the conditions. The Netherlands will also still have plenty to play for and should be plenty motivated for this match, knowing that three points could win them the group (really, no one wants to face Brazil in the second round). Chile’s attacking brand of football should make this a wide open, back-and-forth game, which suits the Dutch just fine. This could be the most entertaining match in Group B. In the end, the Dutch have the better finishers and emerge victorious in a high-scoring affair.
PREDICTION: 3-2 Netherlands
Group B Prediction