That time is upon us once again—a special month where the world unites, where agony and ecstasy are dispensed in equal measures and where heroes and villains are born. Indeed, there’s nothing quite like a World Cup.
With the 2014 tournament in Brazil now only a matter of weeks away, the buzz around the football world is clear for all to see.
Though 32 teams will begin the 2014 World Cup, there can only be one winner. Here, we take a look at two Group Stage matches whereby drawing a winner is a tough task.
Spain vs. Netherlands
On paper, this looks like being a one-sided affair, with Spain expected to run riot in the opening match of their title defence in a repeat of the 2010 final.
However, Group B’s opener may well be a lot tighter than expected, as Dutch manager Louis van Gaal looks to bow out of national-team service in the best possible fashion.
The newly appointed Manchester United boss will have to negotiate a tough group if he’s to repeat the Netherlands’ exploits of four years ago, but he’ll be more determined than ever to do just that.
The 2002 slip-up aside, Holland have been a force to be reckoned with in the World Cup, reaching at least the quarter-finals in three of their last four campaigns.
With the likes of Arjen Robben, Rafael van der Vaart, Wesley Sneijder and Robin van Persie in their ranks, they have more than enough firepower to produce the goods once again.
However, the absence of Roma’s highly rated defensive midfielder Kevin Strootman means that Van Gaal will have to make a tactical switch to the 5-3-2 formation, as he said during a news conference—reported by Reuters:
I have three reasons to change the system. The injury to Strootman, the fact we don't have enough quality left backs and because I want to play with a minimum of three creative players at the World Cup. It is a system in which the players can show their strength. It is old school Dutch style. I had a word with my captains Van Persie and Robben about it first and they were both enthusiastic.
Playing to Dutch strength rather than piling 11 men behind the ball could play into Van Gaal’s hands, though the insurance policy of five defenders means that Spain will have a tough task in breaking down the Dutch.
Prior to their friendly defeat at the hands of France in March, the Netherlands were enjoying a remarkable unbeaten run, as Opta Johan revealed:
17 - The Netherlands are unbeaten in their last 17 international matches, winning 11 and drawing 6. Momentum.— OptaJohan (@OptaJohan) March 5, 2014
Spain, though, are on an unbeaten run of their own in terms of major tournaments, with two European Championships and a World Cup on their honours list since 2008.
Despite being world football’s overlords in recent times, the Spanish have come under criticism of late with a few less-than-convincing performances, summed up by their 1-0 loss to South Africa at the back end of 2013.
However, they remain arguably the best set of players ever to take to the national stage, and while the Dutch may be prepared, if Spain bring their A game, then Van Gaal could be kicking off World Cup 2014 with a defeat.
England vs. Italy
Roy Hodgson’s England are probably the least-fancied side that the nation have ever sent to a World Cup, with the young squad being written out of contention before even kicking a ball.
There are some positive murmurs going around about England’s chances—albeit very quiet ones—but they’ll need to find a way past Italy when Group D kicks off on June 14 if they’re to find a way to progress.
With some overwhelming talent in the squad, England will trouble any side that comes their way if they can perform as a unit; and with Hodgson’s vast knowledge of Italian football, the Azzurri may be the first side to taste said trouble.
The 66-year-old spent time in the hot seats of both Inter Milan and Udinese, and he has already identified how to prevent Italy from ticking: Silence Andrea Pirlo.
The playmaker performed incredibly when England were knocked out of Euro 2012 by Italy, and Hodgson has singled him out as their main threat—per BBC Sport:
“In the last 10 years, he has made Italy play. We have respect for everyone but if I have to give a name, I say Pirlo.”
If Pirlo can find space and dictate play the way that he has for Serie A champions Juventus this season, then it could be a long evening for England on June 14.
The 35-year-old appears to be getting better with age, and with phenomenal talent around him in Cesare Prandelli’s side, he will undoubtedly thrive at World Cup 2014.
Happy 35th birthday to the ageless Italian, Andrea Pirlo! pic.twitter.com/QzMrKwM8p1— Bleacher Report UK (@br_uk) May 19, 2014
This match is one that could go either way, and with the highly rated Uruguay and Costa Rica in Group D with Italy and England, a win would be priceless for either nation.
All four of these teams will play with the belief that 2014 could be their year. Despite the glitz and glamour that a World Cup brings, two ties such as these require dogged determination and grit rather than silky-smooth ability.
Both matches will showcase some of the best footballers on the planet, but until both matches’ final whistles sound, they’re near impossible to call.