Title holder Spain rides under the radar

[WORLD CUP PREVIEW: Friday] A couple of "old" guys will be in the spotlight when Mexico and Cameroon clash in Natal.


Group A
Friday, June 13 | Natal: Estadio das Dunas | Referee: Wilmar Roldan (Colombia).
TV: ESPN2, Univision/UDN, noon. ET.

The career of Rafael Marquez, 35, looked doomed after two disappointing seasons with the New York Red Bulls, but the former Barcelona central defender has since helped Leon to back-to-back to Mexican league titles. After the USA kept Mexico alive in World Cup qualifying by eliminating Panama, new coach Miguel Herrera recalled Marquez and made him captain as El Tri downed New Zealand for the ticket to Brazil.

SA World Cup Previews:
Mike Woitalla: Group A

Like Marquez, Cameroon's 33-year-old striker Samuel Eto'o is playing in his fourth World Cup, after appearances in 1998, 2002 and 2010. Eto'o, Cameroon's all-time leading scorer, struck nine goals for Chelsea last season and was put on the transfer list.

Eto'o and Marquez were Barcelona teammates for five years. How they fare against each other could decide this game.


Group B
Friday, June 13 | Salvador: Arena Fonte Nova | Referee: Nicola Rizzoli (Italy).
TV: ESPN, Univision/UDN, 3 p.m. ET.

European champion in 2008 and 2012 as well as defending World Cup winner, Spain is rather surprisingly not meriting extensive mention as the ultimate winner in Brazil. Perhaps observers believe it is too old in too many positions, or merely that the time of another nation has arrived.

Its players are apparently not fretting over the importance of gaining at least a point in the first match, as is common belief, since it is most notable exception. It shook off a 1-0 loss to Switzerland in its group opener four years ago to run the table the rest of the way.

“In 2010 we showed that if you lose the first game [to Switzerland] it's not all over, but we want to get off to a winning start,” said Bayern Munich midfielder Javi Martinez, who has from a minor player in South Africa to one of Spain’s key contributors. “To win the tournament you have to win as many games as possible, but in the last World Cup we showed that even after losing the first game, we wanted to get to the final.”

Atletico Madrid attacker Diego Costa, hobbled by a torn hamstring for more than a month, is expected get a start from head coach Vicente Del Bosque against the Dutch. The striker didn’t play 90 minutes in a friendly against El Salvador last week as a precaution to aid his recovery. He was forced out of the Champions League final against Real Madrid last month after just a few minutes.

“Of course he's ready,” said teammate Koke, whose crisp play for Atletico as well as Spain is often under-appreciated. “I think he is 100 per cent fit, if he wasn't, he would have told the coach.”

The Netherlands doesn’t boast as many returnees from the 2010 competition as does Spain, yet it also toppled out of the 2012 Euros after three group games. It pummeled its opposition during the qualifiers, winning nine of 10 games while scoring 35 goals, but none of those foes was ranked in the FIFA world rankings’ top 30.

A potent attack led by Manchester United striker Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben, Martinez’s teammate at Bayern, is tempered by perceived defensive weaknesses.

SA World Cup Previews:
Ridge Mahoney: Group B


Group B
Friday, June 13 | Cuiaba: Arena Pantanal | Referee: Noumandiez Doue (Ivory Coast).
TV: ESPN2, Univision/UDN, 6 p.m. ET.

The prospects of Chile edging into a qualification place from Group B got a boost Wednesday when midfielder Arturo Vidal, who has been suffering from knee inflammation following surgery on his meniscus a month ago, took part in a team training session. The teams kick off right after group heavyweights Spain and the Netherlands play their opener.

Vidal, 28, hadn’t been able to participate extensively since playing 15 minutes in a surprise comeback last week against Northern Ireland in a friendly. Before Wednesday, he’d been training alone and doing special exercises and undergoing physiotherapy to speed his recovery. Yet Chile isn’t overly dependent on him, nor striker Alexis Sanchez, who notched 19 league goals for Barcelona this past season and has scored 22 times for his country.

“You go through their squad and [Vidal] it's one player,” said Australia captain Mile Jedinak. “He is an important player, but they have many players who are playing at a good level and a number of players in his position who are strong.”

Chile emerged from a group that included Spain four years ago and in the round of 16 it lost to Brazil, 3-0. It finished third in the South American qualifying campaign. Australia is competing in its third consecutive World Cup and in 2010 lost out only by goal difference, to Ghana, to advance after compiling a 1-1-1 record.

Saturday ...

June 14 in Belo Horizonte
Group C: Colombia vs. Greece
ABC, Univision/UDN noon ET
June 14 in Fortaleza
Group D: Uruguay vs. Costa Rica
ABC, Univision/UDN 3 p.m. ET
June 14 in Manaus
Group D: England vs. Italy
ESPN, Univision/UDN 6 p.m. ET
June 14 in Recife
Group C: Ivory Coast vs. Japan
ESPN, Univision/UDN 9 p.m. ET
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