The World Cup's Group B action starts with a bang, as Spain meet the Netherlands in a rerun of the last World Cup final (3 p.m. ET, ESPN). On that occasion Spain ran out winners, and they head into this encounter as favourites to do the same again. Though they no longer look quite as dominant as they were at the height of their tiki-taka-ing powers, they're still one of the strongest teams in the tournament, and the Netherlands, well, aren't.
Certainly the Oranje shouldn't be written off. They're under the stewardship of one of the world's most successful coaches in Louis van Gaal, and in the likes of Robin van Persie an Arjen Robben, they have proven top-tier players. But van Gaal has revamped their starting lineup, with many of the players fairly inexperienced internationally. Likewise, the absence of their star midfielders Kevin Strootman and Rafael van der Vaart could force unpredictable late tactical changes that Spain may take advantage of.
Spain coach Vicente del Bosque has no reason to deviate from the fluid 4-3-3 formation that has won Spain three consecutive major tournaments, though for this World Cup, the personnel will be slightly tweaked. Chelsea's César Azpilicueta is doing battle with Juanfran for the starting spot at right-back, while David Silva is likely to pip Cesc Fàbregas to a place in the attacking trident. Diego Costa should be fit to lead the line.
It's anyone's guess as to how van Gaal will set his Netherlands team up for the opening fixture, with the veteran coach having switched from his classic 4-3-3 to a 3-4-1-2 and then a 4-4-2 in preparation matches. At this stage the best guess seems to be the defensive trio with Robben and van Persie spearheading the attack -- a move apparently inspired by the absence of the injured Strootman.
Projected lineups (left to right)
Spain (4-3-3): Iker Casillas; Jordi Alba, Sergio Ramos, Gerard Piqué, César Azpilicueta; Xabi Alonso, Sergio Busquets, Xavi; David Silva, Diego Costa, Andrés Iniesta.
Netherlands (3-4-1-2): Jasper Cillessen; Bruno Martins Indi, Ron Vlaar, Stefan de Vrij; Daley Blind, Jordy Clasie, Nigel de Jong, Daryl Janmaat; Wesley Sneijder; Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben.
Spain's attackers vs. the Netherlands' defenders - There is still no international team in the world better at retaining possession than Spain, so defensive concentration and discipline throughout is paramount. In Euro 2012 Italy successfully utilised a back three to nullify Spain in a 1-1 draw, after some excellent deep defending. If the Netherlands are to do the same, they'll have to ensure neither their midfielders nor their centre-backs are dragged out of position by the fluidity of the Spanish attack, with zonal familiarity the key.
The wide areas - With the centre of the field likely to be so congested, it could well be that this game will be won and lost in the wide areas. Assuming the Netherlands' three centre backs each pick up one of Spain's attackers, their wing backs will be left one-on-one against Spain's fullbacks out wide. Should Daley Blind and Daryl Janmaat cut off the overlapping runs of Jordi Alba and César Azpilicueta and win these individual duels, the Dutch will reap the rewards in both the offensive and defensive phases.
Arjen Robben vs. Spain's fullbacks - Given that they're not going to be able to match Spain for possession, the Netherlands will instead look to harm them with quick counter-attacks. Fortunately, there are few players in the world better on the counter than Robben. Though nominally a striker in this 3-4-1-2, he'll presumably have the freedom to drift to the flanks, helping to create an overload against Spain's attack-minded fullbacks Jordi Alba and César Azpilicueta. Should he get in behind, he could do some serious damage.
The Netherlands aren't looking quite as sharp as they were in South Africa four years ago, though should they get their tactics right, Spain shouldn't run riot. Having said that, del Bosque's team will likely have enough individual quality to see them through. 2-1 Spain.