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All eyes are on La Roja

Group B
Spain & the Netherlands should qualify, but watch out for Chile

Despite talks about Spain not being the same near invincible side, which it was between 2008 and 2012, the defending champions are still one of the favourites. They not only have the best odds to win the Group B but the sixth best odds to win the tournament overall.

The reason the Spaniards are so good is because of their stacked midfield with the likes of world-class players Cesc Fabregas, Andres Iniesta, and Xabi Alonso. They are vying to become the only team after Brazil to win back-to-back World Cups.

This time, for a while, there were fears that they may not get through, at least not as group winners. Two draws in a row, albeit five months apart, meant La Roja had to travel to France in order to avoid a play-off.

But all said and done, in defence of their title, legendary boss Vincente del Bosque (in pic) will have a host of talented players to choose from.

Spain have a relatively tough group as the opening game is a repeat of the final from four years ago, and after the Netherlands come Chile and Australia. Should Spain finish second, it is likely that their next opponents will be Brazil.

KEY PLAYERS

Diego Costa: There are still fitness concerns and doubts over the Brazilian-born striker. But he will be one of the most closely-watched players if he is deemed fit. In short, he is the face of Spain’s striking force.

Andres Iniesta: A player whose influence at club level for Barcelona is often undervalued due to the brilliance of Lionel Messi. But Iniesta is without a doubt Spain’s man for the big occasion. He remains a major influence for Del Bosque’s team.

Xavi Hernandez: At 34, this could surely be Xavi’s last World Cup. Spain’s key midfield navigator has spoken about his desire to lead the team in South America, and it is hard to imagine Xavi failing to be one of the difference-makers in the tournament.

The Netherlands’ squad looks to be in good shape. Louis Van Gaal (in pic) has ushered out a chunk of the 2010 squad and has stumbled upon an encouraging blend of established squad members and blossoming youngsters. It means that world-class players like Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben still remain key figures, but they are supported by lesser-known burgeoning talents like Bruno Martins-Indi and Jordy Clasie.

Despite their rip-roaring qualifying performances, there is a sense that this tournament might be too much too soon for this redeveloping outfit. The defence — whilst it is full of highly rated younger players — is crying out for an authoritative, experienced head. That could hinder them in the big pressure games but with players of the calibre of Robben and Van Persie performing at their very best, the Oranje have it in them to beat anyone on their day.

The defensive midfield could get interesting. Emerging Roma midfielder Kevin Strootman going down with a knee injury was a major blow. The back four could also be suspect. Seven of the nine defenders Van Gaal called up are 23 or younger. To add to Dutch woe, veteran midfielder Rafael van der Vaart would miss the World Cup after injuring a calf muscle in his right leg.

KEY PLAYERS

Arjen Robben: For all his obvious talent, Robben was a player who had developed a reputation as something of a “bottler” for missing crucial chances in Champions League and 2010 World Cup final. He has now become a selfless worker for the team.

Wesley Sneijder: With Kevin Strootman out injured, Van Gaal’s midfield options are limited and Wesley Sneijder's experience will make him an asset the coach may not be able to overlook.

Robin van Persie: Robin van Persie recently became the Netherlands’ top scorer of all time, overtaking Patrick Kluivert's 40-goal mark. But he will be desperately hoping he finally buries criticism that he can’t find the net in major tournaments.

Jorge Sampaoli guided Chile to third place in the CONEMBOL qualifying stages and they have been hotly tipped as potential outsiders for a deep run into the tournament. Originally forged under their previous manager, Marcelo Bielsa, Chile are known for their all-round aggression. When in possession, they attack swiftly and directly. In defence, they press their opponents, pestering them all over the field. This style produces results, like when they recently won 2-0 against England in a friendly at Wembley.

Chile won nine of 14 games played in 2013 and lost just two: against Peru in the qualifiers in March and in a friendly against Brazil. In this year’s preparations for the finals, Jorge Sampaoli’s team beat Costa Rica 4-0 and suffered a 1-0 defeat by Germany in a high level match in which they put Joachim Loew’s team in serious danger but failed to score. But Sampaoli must resolve a recurring problem: an unstable back line that shows fragility when they play against the big guns.

In the World Cup, Chile will be well acquainted with the conditions and resultantly should have no problems implementing Sampaoli's high-intensity, high-pressure brand of football.

KEY PLAYERS

Alexis Sanchez: A fundamental part of the Chile team, the Barcelona player’s spicy dribbling is a constant danger to rival defenders. He gives Chile an enviable power of goals and explosive attack. “El Nino Maravilla” (Wonder Boy) has curbed his diving for which he was heavily criticised.

Arturo Vidal: He is one of the world's best midfielders. He has defensive skills, is a good header, lays on goals and has scored eight for Chile.

Jorge Valdivia: The former Al Ain playmaker is a first class player whose career has been plagued with ups and downs because of injuries and a lack of discipline that kept him out of the national team twice.

Australia surprised the soccer fans during the 2006 World Cup when packed with English Premier League players, they advanced from the group stage before losing to a controversial penalty decision against ultimate champions Italy. This is their third consecutive World Cup, and they will have had a different coach in each appearance. This Cup’s coach, Ange Postecoglou (in pic), is Australia’s best domestic club coach and expected to get the best results from his team.

As the lowest-ranked team heading for Brazil, Australia’s fourth trip to the World Cup finals was always going to be a challenge even before Lady Luck abandoned them in December's tournament draw. Spain and the Netherlands, who fought out the 2010 World Cup final, as well as South American powerhouse Chile, presented the worst scenario.

With expectations not exactly sky high - which is understandable given the almost impossible nature of Australia’s group - hopes for this summer therefore rest more on performances rather than results. And if the ‘Socceroos’ can give a good account of themselves against heavyweights Spain and Holland, the football fraternity back home will be in forgiving mood of Ange Postecoglou and his recalibrated squad.

KEY PLAYERS

Tim Cahill: At 34 and playing in his third World Cup, midfielder Tim Cahill is expected to be the heart of the team in Brazil. Always an aerial threat despite his modest height, he still manages to get above much taller defenders.

Mile Jedinak: Rewarded for good form at club level with captain’s armband. His ability to hold the midfield will play a crucial role in bolstering an inexperienced defence.

Tommy Omar: He has moved quickly up the football ranks, joining the A-League’s Brisbane Roar at the start of the 2008-09 season and being named the best young player in the country the following year. The 22-year-old winger first played for Australia against Indonesia in 2010 but didn't make it to the World Cup in South Africa.

Jubilant Spanish players with the 2010 World Cup. Spain defeated The Netherlands 1-0 with Andres Iniesta scoring the all-important goal