A rematch of the 2010 FIFA World Cup Final, Spain face off against Netherlands in Salvador to open proceedings for group B. Both teams look strong on paper, and it will be an interesting watch as to who has the last laugh. Vicente del Bosque and Spain are gunning for a second consecutive World Cup title, while Louis van Gaal will look to take the Dutch one step further than where they finished last term.
Much has been said about Spain’s lack of a proper penalty box striker and their use of a midfielder as a false forward. Brazil born Diego Costa’s impressive yet injury-plagued season at Atletico Madrid makes its case for a conventional no9, but Del Bosque has been known for his calculated risks and playing safe when things remain uncertain. This means new Chelsea signing Cesc Fabregas could even start as a false nine. Fabregas’ selection will definitely mean Spain will pass Netherlands to death without creating too many direct goalscoring opportunities.
Van Gaal has made some news by frequently changing shape; it showed his distrust in his players more than anything else. He has quickly shunned the 4-2-3-1 used in qualifying to a more bottom-heavy 3-5-2 that sees the Dutch packing the back with three centre backs. A good strategy to frustrate the Spanish, but it also depends on how good his three forward players in Robben, Van Persie and Sneijder come.
Ron Vlaar v Fabregas/Silva/Iniesta
Another reason why Del Bosque could go for a false nine could be the Dutch’s physicality and immobility at the back. Diego Costa is good in the air, and runs into wide channels which may prove ineffective against the three-man physical Netherlands defence as well as the quick wing-backs in Janmaat and Blind. Aerial battles could be owned by the trio of Vlaar, De Vrij and Martins-Indi while wide spaces could be easily covered by the motoring full-backs.
An alternate strategy would be to play Fabregas and his interchanges with the front two could pose more troubles to the Dutch defence. A lack of a proper forward makes it incredibly difficult to mark a particular player and hold the line, and Vlaar being the leader at the back means that it could be a key battle that could decide the game. Either Vlaar could have a blinder, which is hard to expect considering the fact that he is not world class, or Fabregas and co could run him ragged.
Robben v Pique
Gerard Pique has had troubles in the past dealing with pacey forwards, and in Arjen Robben, he probably faces the best of the lot. Robben’s pace and trickery found Spain out in the 2010 final, and without Carles Puyol alongside him, Pique could be in for quite a rough ride. Centre back partner Sergio Ramos isn’t the most tactically disciplined defender; he mostly relies on instincts and anticipation in last-ditch defending, which means Pique will have to step up to the plate.
Pique’s lack of pace was exposed by Neymar and co in the Confederations Cup last summer, and Robben’s propensity to run in behind defences could make for a testing night for Pique. Another key battle that could decide where the game heads.
Sneijder v Busquets
Although the Dutch will have more space on the flanks with their wing-backs always on the overlap, Sneijder still runs the rule from his no10 role. His biggest roadblock will obviously be the excellent Sergio Busquets. Sneijder could find far lesser space with Busquets constantly harrying him when not in possession, and Sneijder would have to be extremely decisive and quick on the ball whenever the Dutch get possession.
It will be a cagey first game, with both teams playing with intentions of not losing. Spain could knick it with their superior overall quality, but the game will see little goalmouth action. A tense 1-0 win for Spain to kickstart their defence of the World Cup.