Teams (world ranking in brackets): Spain (1), Netherlands (9), Chile (15), Australia (59)
Spain vs Netherlands, Salvador
Chile vs Australia, Cuiaba
Australia vs Netherlands, Porto Alegre
Spain vs Chile, Rio de Janeiro
Australia vs Spain, Curitiba
Netherlands vs Chile, Sao Paulo
Coach: Vincente del Bosque
Captain: Iker Casillas
World Cup Appearances: 13 (1934, 1950, 1962, 1966, 1978, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010)
Best Result: Champions (2010)
Qualified: 1st Group I
Qualification Top Scorer: Pedro (4)
Spain qualified for the World Cup through Group I, narrowly holding out the French. They were victorious in the 2010 edition of the tournament. In June they were defeated by Brazil in the Confederations Cup final.
Spain have the strongest credentials of any side entering this tournament. They are ranked number 1 in the world (and have stayed there for some time) and last year became the first team to win three major tournaments in succession. Andres Iniesta is one of the best playmakers in the world, and players such as Xavi, Pedro, Xabi Alonso, Sergio Busquets, David Silva, Jordi Alba, Santi Cazorla and Juan Mata support him in his role. The defence is very solid and is one of the keys to recent Spanish successes.
The Spanish don’t have many weaknesses, but the goalkeeping situation may be a slight issue. An early-season injury to captain Iker Casillas gave Diego Lopez a chance to play regularly at Real Madrid. The back-up took the chance with both hands, and Casillas faces a struggle for regular selection. An injury to back-up Victor Valdes at Barcelona means that the two first-choice keepers will have missed sizeable chunks of the domestic season.
Coach: Louis van Gaal
Captain: Robin van Persie
World Cup Appearances: 9 (1934, 1938, 1974, 1978, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2006, 2010)
Best Result: Runners-Up (1974, 1978, 2010)
Qualified: First Group D
Qualification Top Scorer: Robin van Persie (11)
The Dutch enter this tournament having been runners-up last time round. They qualified in a reasonably simple group, facing Romania, Turkey, Hungary, Estonia and Andorra. They had a disappointing Euro 2012, and as a result sacked Bert van Marwijk as manager.
The Dutch have a strong midfield, with Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben and Rafael van der Vaart all experienced players at the highest level. They will support proven marksmen Robin van Persie and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. With young players such as Jeremain Lens, Daley Blind, Jasper Cillesen, Eljero Elia and Jetro Willems the Oranje have a lot of potential for success.
The Dutch may struggle when confronted with some of the excellent forwards in this group. While Cillesen is a great future prospect, he isn’t quite of the standard of other keepers in the tournament. With Michel Vorm and Tim Krul the other options, the Dutch aren’t particularly strong in that regard, although Maarten Stekelenburg has made a return to the national set-up. The centre of defence is also a worry, as it lacks experience. The Dutch have also got a large number of players in their squad who play in the Dutch league, which doesn’t have as much pedigree as other leagues.
Coach: Jorge Sampaoli
Captain: Claudio Bravo
World Cup Appearances: 8 (1930, 1950, 1962, 1966, 1974, 1982, 1998, 2010)
Best Result: 3rd Place (1962)
Qualified: 3rd in CONMEBOL qualifying
Qualification Top Scorer: Arturo Vidal and Eduardo Vargas (5)
The Chileans qualified automatically for the finals, coming third in the CONMEBOL qualifying. Last time they competed at the finals they were bundled out at the round of 16 by Brazil after being drawn against Spain in the group stage.
Chile are very strong in midfield and attack, with players such as Arturo Vidal and Alexis Sanchez both excellent players. Matias Fernandez, Jorge Valdivia, Claudio Bravo, Gary Medel and Humberto Suazo are very experienced footballers, and combined with young players like Sanchez, Angelo Henriquez, Eduardo Vargas and Junior Fernandes the team is well-balanced. Bravo is a very solid goalkeeper and will be of great benefit to the Chileans.
While the Chileans are very strong in attack they are not so strong in defence. They conceded 25 goals in qualifying, and when compared to the other three members of the top four (Argentina with 15, Colombia with 13 and Ecuador with 16) you can see that it may be a slight issue. The reason for the defence’s trouble is a lack of players who aren’t young and inexperienced but also aren’t past their prime. They will need to solve this fast if they are to improve.
Coach: Ange Postecoglou
Captain: Lucas Neill
World Cup Appearances: 3 (1974, 2006, 2010)
Best Result: Round of 16 (2006)
Qualified: Second Group B
Qualification Top Scorer: Josh Kennedy (5)
Australia recently sacked manager Holger Osieck after consecutive 6-0 defeats against Brazil and France. They qualified with a very tense 1-0 victory over Iraq, with an 83rd minute strike from Josh Kennedy enough to send them through.
The Socceroos have got some good young talent coming through their ranks, with a lot of young Australians moving to the bigger European leagues. Robbie Kruse is a great player and is getting some reasonably regular game time with Bayer Leverkusen. Borussia Dortmund back-up Mitchell Langerak is now the first-choice keeper due to the retirement of Mark Schwarzer, and Tommy Oar and Tom Rogic have shown promise. Tim Cahill remains a key player.
Despite the youth coming through the ranks, the Socceroos are an ageing team. Cahill, Lucas Neill, Marco Bresciano, Josh Kennedy, Luke Wilkshire and Archie Thompson are all in their thirties, the latter being 35. The consecutive 6-0 defeats led to Osieck’s dismissal as manager, and they scraped through the qualifying. They have only had four wins in 2013, and one of them was a 1-0 victory over an under-strength Costa Rica.
Australia are the lowest ranked out of any of the 32 teams competing in the finals, and they will struggle to defeat any of the other three teams. Expect some very tight finishes between the other three teams. The rematch of the 2010 World Cup final will be an interesting match.
1. Spain, 2. Netherlands, 3. Chile, 4. Australia
Next Week: I put the teams from Group C under the spotlight, where some of the most exciting players in the world are on display.