By Ridge Mahoney
Defending World Cup champion Spain heads to Brazil aiming to repeat and continue an historic run of titles; it also won the European Championships in 2008 and 2012, and produced both finalists in the Champions League competition won last month by Real Madrid against Atletico Madrid.
Group play starts off with a rematch of the 2010 final but no one will wish to see the same brutal, cynical Dutch team that literally went down swinging to Spain, 1-0. And no one is quite sure what the Dutch will bring to this tournament; after narrowly losing its third World Cup final -- it also fell in the 1974 and 1978 title games -- it lost all three of its group matches at the 2012 Euros while scoring just two goals.
The Netherlands is missing midfielder Kevin Strootman, who tore a knee ligament playing for Roma in March and had been described by head coach Louis Van Gaal as one of only three players “guaranteed” a spot on the World Cup roster. Captain Robin Van Persie and winger Arjen Robben are the others.
Australia is the makeweight yet can play a prominent role by earning just one tie. The Aussies, who are competing in their third straight World Cup, start off against Chile, which provides an interesting barometer of how strong is South American soccer. If the Chileans can repeat their 2010 feat of getting out of a group that includes Spain, probably at the expense of the Dutch, it will mark the first such accomplishment in their long soccer history. The crowds and conditions should work in their favor.
Only Brazil can match Spain for style and flair, though the packed defenses it often faces in major competitions inevitably trigger criticisms of its “boring” approach. It reacted fiercely to such buzz in the 2012 Euro final by smashing Italy, 4-0, and if it adapts to the Brazilian weather and playing surfaces will be hard to stop, at least until the later rounds.
Our picks:1. Spain. 2. Chile. 3. Netherlands. 4. Australia.
Group B Schedule
June 13 in Salvador
Spain vs. Netherlands (ESPN, Univision/UDN 3 p.m. ET)
June 13 in Cuiaba
Chile vs. Australia (ESPN2, Univision/UDN 6 p.m. ET)
June 18 in Rio de Janeiro
Spain vs. Chile (ESPN, Univision/UDN 3 p.m. ET)
June 18 in Porto Alegre
Australia vs. Netherlands (ESPN, Univision/UDN noon ET)
June 23 in Curitiba
Australia vs. Spain (ESPN2, UniMas/Galavision noon ET)
June 23 in Sao Paulo
Netherlands vs. Chile (ESPN, Univision/UDN noon ET)
Rosters: Australia | Chile | Netherlands | Spain
MOST LIKELY TO SCORE. Some of the world’s most prolific scorers not namedLionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo will feature in this group, and not all of them play for Spain. Chile’s Alexis Sanchez, who at age 25 has yet to reach his peak years, scored 27 goals for Barcelona last season. Van Persie has scored 134 Premier League goals for Arsenal and Manchester United since leaving Feyenoord in 2004 and led all European scorers during World Cup qualifying with 11 goals.
Normally, a thrilling player such as Diego Costawould delight the demanding Brazilian fans, but a year ago he opted to change allegiances to Spain. The native of Lagarto, Brazil, scored 36 goals during Atletico’s amazing season -- the La Liga titlist and Champions League finalist -- and has been sold to Chelsea in a $53.5 million deal.
CONTINENTAL FACTS.Chile hosted the World Cup in 1962, after Uruguay (1930) and Brazil (1950) but before Argentina (1978). No European nation has ever won a World Cup played in South America, so history is not on Span's side, but the world has changed a lot since the last such staging 36 years ago.
RVP HOBBLES.Van Persie hobbled off the field at halftime of a friendly Wednesday against Wales with a groin injury but Van Gaal said it was “a little injury.’ A knee injury sidelined van Persie near the end of the club season. Chile will closely monitor Juventus midfielder Arturo Vidal, who underwent a keyhole operation on a meniscus problem in mid-may. Spain gambled by naming Costa, who was hampered by a hamstring injury during the final month of the club season and limped out of the Champions League final just minutes after the opening kickoff.
NEW YORK, NEW YORK. Tim Cahilldidn’t arrive in America with anything near the ballyhoo of teammate Thierry Henry, but the Aussie has given good service to the Red Bulls while maintaining his international status. On the day Spain flew to Washington to finish up its World Cup preparations, New York City FC unveiled Spanish forward David Villa as its first player signing. Villa, 32, will play on loan with Melbourne City FC before joining up with NYCFC for preseason camp in January. On Wednesday, he announced he will retire from international soccer after the World Cup, during which he can add to his all-time Spanish record of 56 goals.