By Neil Maidment, Nick Mulvenney and Rex Gowar
Spain will be lifted by a reminder of the glory of four years ago as the defence of their World Cup crown begins against 2010 finalists the Netherlands in Salvador on Friday in a standout Group B opener.
Spain, also 2008 and 2012 European Championship winners, arrive in Brazil with 16 players retained from the squad that triumphed in South Africa, the most returned at the following World Cup by any world champion, with many still bearing the scars of a bruising encounter with the Dutch in 2010.
Spain dominated possession in Johannesburg and took a barrage of heavy tackles by a fierce Dutch defensive guard, but fans streaming to the Fonte Nova arena will be hoping for a more attacking treat this time around as Xavi, Andres Iniesta and David Silva’s superb passing game comes up against a Dutch counter attack possessing Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie.
Vincent Del Bosque’s La Roja, bolstered this time by the prolific Brazilian-born Diego Costa, begin among the favourites for the tournament in Brazil, where success would see them become the first Europeans to win the World Cup in the Americas.
The Dutch tactics under coach Louis van Gaal have been hotly debated in the Brazil build-up after he opted to ditch a traditional 4-3-3 approach in favour of a 5-3-2, after losing midfield king pin Kevin Strootman to long-term injury and favouring a more pressing approach.
“I don’t think at the moment we are capable of playing tika taka,” Arjen Robben, told Dutch team website Ons Oranje. “The counter is a very dangerous weapon that we will be certainly using at this tournament.”
Mexico and Cameroon meanwhile would be prime contenders for the title of most fortunate qualifiers for the World Cup but both will fancy their chances of progressing from Group A if they can win their opening encounter on Friday.
Hosts Brazil and Croatia round out the group so traditional early tournament caution could be thrown to the wind at the Dunas arena with both teams knowing that a draw is unlikely to much help their cause.
CONCACAF powerhouse Mexico just scraped through to a playoff only courtesy of a dramatic last gasp victory by the United States over Panama last year before overwhelming New Zealand to secure their place at a sixth successive World Cup.
Cameroon’s Lions likewise looked anything but indomitable in their qualifying campaign and they needed the reversal of a 2-0 defeat to Togo after their West African rivals fielded a suspended player to get to a playoff.
They thumped Tunisia 4-1 on aggregate to reach a seventh successive World Cup finals, however, and a 2-2 draw against Germany in a friendly last week offered some hope that Volker Finke’s team were starting to click.
If Australia’s World Cup warm-up against Ecuador in London in March is anything to go by, their opening Group B clash with Chile at the Pantanal Arena in Friday’s final game could be a thriller.
Australia, who took a shock three-goal lead against the Ecuadoreans before being over-run in the second half and losing 4-3, like to hit opponents with fast breaks and if they are to do anything of note in Brazil they must beat Chile.
Chile like to play in their opponents’ half with a fast and furious pressing game based on as much possession as possible.
The South Americans, third in their region’s qualifying group, are favourites against an Australian team in transition with the 2015 Asian Cup a far more realistic goal.
Chile are playing on their own continent but the muggy conditions in Cuiaba deep in the Mato Grosso swampland are not necessarily an advantage for them because the country has a more European climate.