With one of the deepest World Cup fields in recent memory, a few countries were bound to draw the short straw.
While Group G features Portugal, Germany, the United States and Ghana, the only group at the 2014 World Cup worthy of the moniker "Group of Death" is Group B.
Spain have won three international tournaments in a row. The Netherlands were runners-up four years ago. Chile are a dangerous team who looked great in qualifying. Even Australia could sneak a couple of draws and take points off the big boys.
The margin for error will be minute when it comes to advancing to the knockout stages.
Odds via Oddschecker.com
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Australia are the odd man out in the group. The Socceroos simply don't have the squad depth to compete with Chile, Spain and the Netherlands. Even worse, Tim Cahill has struggled for New York Red Bulls this season, while Robbie Kruse was ruled out after getting hurt in January.
Where will Spain finish in the 2014 World Cup?
Perhaps Australia can replicate New Zealand's success at the 2010 World Cup, but third place is as good as it's going to get.
Now, let's get down to business.
Spain are the best team in the group and should finish top. As many questions as they have, La Roja have silenced the doubters at both the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012. Coach Vicente del Bosque is adept at tweaking just enough to ensure that complacency and predictability don't creep into the side.
As much as the Barcelona/Spain tiki-taka system looks outmoded, Del Bosque has demonstrated a willingness to win ugly if necessary (see Euro 2012). He's much more pragmatic than some give him credit for.
The health of Diego Costa will be an ongoing storyline. He was injured in Atletico Madrid's league finale against Barcelona, and he's facing a race against time to be fit for the World Cup.
Everton manager Roberto Martinez thinks the inclusion of the Brazilian-born forward could tip the scales in Spain's favor, per Andy Hunter of The Guardian:
They wanted to win the country’s first European Championships for years, then the first World Cup, then three tournaments in a row. Now they have the final target to be the first European team to win the World Cup in South America. The individuals are superb and the way they play is very clear so youngsters can fit in. Now they have the extra element of Diego Costa, an ex-Brazilian who you can imagine is going to bring a lot of spice. Against Brazil last summer they needed to find a way to get out of their own half and they can add that to their play now with Costa. I do feel Spain is still the team to beat.
Costa is the kind of direct forward that Spain have missed for the last few years, and he would provide the extra dimension that could help break down organized defences.
Spain without Costa are still very good. Spain with Costa are downright scary.
The Netherlands were dealt a cruel blow when Kevin Strootman tore his ACL back in March. The Roma midfielder was one Louis van Gaal's favorites throughout the qualification phase, and he was the linchpin of the midfield.
Strootman's versatility was sorely lacking at Euro 2012, when the Dutch couldn't find the conduit between the defence and attack. His form this past season also made him one of the most effective players in Europe, according to Bloomberg Sports:
Without Stootman, the Dutch don't have much of a choice rather than sitting back defensive and hoping to spring quick counterattacks.
In friendlies against Ghana and Ecuador, Van Gaal opted for a 5-3-2. Daley Blind and Jordy Clasie operated in a double-pivot against the latter, and Jonathan de Guzman and Nigel de Jong filled in against the former.
Playing that formation sacrifices the attack in order to provide more defensive cover, which is much needed considering the inexperience across the back line and in goal.
If the Netherlands' performance at Euro 2012 taught us anything, it's that nothing can be taken for granted. The Dutch can't coast on reputation. They're far from locks to advance out of this grueling group.
Never one to sugarcoat things, Van Gaal spoke in the May issue of World Soccer about the Dutch football federation's goal of making the semifinal:
That's quite a goal! I've said before that eight or 10 teams are better. Look at the FIFA rankings and you notice that Holland have dropped out of the top 10. It indicates that we aren't the favourites. We have introduced a lot of fresh blood into the team and I estimate our chances at 20 percent to reach the quarterfinals.
Not exactly a ringing endorsement.
Chile are the major wild card in Group B.
Four years ago, Marcelo Bielsa's attacking, fast-paced style made the Chileans one of the most fun teams to watch at the World Cup.
As Jonathan Wilson wrote for The Guardian back in November, Jorge Sampaoli has brought back many of the tactical tenets of Bielsa's structure and made Chile an enjoyable squad once again: "There is a swagger about them again, Sampaoli's wild eyes and attacking philosophy beginning to rekindle the embers of Bielsa's time."
Speaking on the team's transition, Sampaoli said:
I believe that the only way to succeed is by uniting players with a love of playing. You try to inspire in them a love of the shirt derived of enjoyment, not obligation. When you succeed in this individualistic society, it is by committing to something intangible, with humility. That allows everybody to come together; the social or cultural background of the people involved doesn't matter.
With the World Cup in South America, Chile should be at an advantage. Even though they had a 3-0-4 away record in qualifying, they'll be much more acclimatized to Brazil than either Spain or the Netherlands.
Sampaoli has the horses to achieve at least a runner-up finish in the group. The only problem he might run into is finding a reliable goalscorer. Alexis Sanchez has had a great season at Barcelona, and Eduardo Vargas carved out a place at Valencia, but neither is a prototypical No. 9.
That could be a problem for Chile if they need to go to a Plan B.
Group Winners: Spain and Chile
Stars to Watch
Daley Blind, Netherlands
Left-back was one of the Netherlands' most glaring issues at Euro 2012. Selecting then-18-year-old Jetro Willems was an unmitigated disaster.
This time around, Van Gaal has a much more established full-back he can select. The only problem is that Daley Blind has blossomed into a talented central midfielder this season, a la Philipp Lahm:
Daley Blind, Eredivisie Player of the Year. Classic controller archetype. Very tidy with the ball + some creativity pic.twitter.com/vK4x0ra0Yf— Ted Knutson (@mixedknuts) May 5, 2014
Van Gaal mentioned how using Blind as a replacement for Strootman only creates another hole in the lineup, per Dutch football journalist Peter McVitie:
Louis van Gaal: "When Strootman got injured, I thought at first that Daley Blind had to play there, but I would have no left back again!"— Peter McVitie (@PeterMcVitie) May 20, 2014
Should Blind play midfield, it would arguably be the more natural fit, at least in Van Gaal's formation. The Ajax left-back is all too eager to bomb forward, but the national team doesn't have the same kind of mobile centre-backs who can shift over like Blind's club side.
No matter if Blind is in midfield or defence, his stock should soar after the World Cup.
Sergio Busquets, Spain
Xavi and Andres Iniesta will get the publicity, but Sergio Busquets might hold the key for the Spain midfield.
Michael Cox wrote for ESPN FC back in October about how the Barcelona midfielder had grown his game to become more than just a shield for the back four:
These days, he's become a different player -- he's more than just an underrated functional part of the side, he's a key figure. Under Martino he's become an all-around threat, someone who roams higher up the pitch when Barcelona don't have possession, rather than simply protecting his defence solidly. His positioning is more variable, and appears to depend upon the role of the opposition No. 10 -- if that man plays as a second centre-forward, Busquets drops in to become a third centre-back.
Busquets is a veritable Swiss army knife for Del Bosque. He can be deployed as a defensive midfielder/ball-winner, or the manager can use him as a distributor/creator for the attack. Del Bosque may need to alter his tactics mid-match, and that wouldn't be a problem with a player as versatile as Busquets.
Costa may score the goals, Iker Casillas may stop the shots and Gerard Pique may shadow the strikers, but Busquets is the functional midfielder who will do the dirty work.
Eduardo Vargas, Chile
As alluded to earlier, Chile may struggle scoring goals. They lack a true forward who can snatch a goal against the run of play.
With Sanchez and Vargas on the wings, the Chileans will be extremely deadly on the counterattack, though.
You know what to expect with the Barcelona winger, and if anything, opposing defences will key on him in Brazil.
That opens the door for Vargas to make his presence felt in a big way.
The 24-year-old showed a lot of promise at Universidad de Chile, but upon moving to Napoli in 2012, his career stalled a bit. Vargas got on track after getting loaned out to Valencia, scoring five goals and assisting on another four for Los Che, according to WhoScored.com.
Whether Vargas is played through the centre or on the wing, he will be one to watch for Chile.
Mat Ryan, Australia
Mark Schwarzer's retirement has left a big hole between the sticks for Australia. He was an underrated goalkeeper and brought a calming presence to the Socceroos' defence.
His departure has opened the door for 22-year-old Mat Ryan.
Some players may be intimidated by a group that includes Spain, Holland and Chile. Ryan, though, is relishing the chance to perform against top competition, per Sebastian Hassett of The Age:
I don’t think you’d be human if you didn’t think about the types of names you’re coming up against. In saying that, there’s no time to be in awe of them. If I’ve got the likes of [Robin] van Persie coming down on goal, I can’t really stop and go ‘Oh, who’s that?’ I’ll be doing my best just to stay focused and, hopefully, not allow him or any of the other players I’ll be facing to put the ball past me when I’m out on the field.
Australia will need to maintain an organized defence in order to survive in Group B, and that starts with Ryan. He'll have to communicate with his defenders.
The World Cup could be a great springboard for the young keeper.