The opening ceremony and first game of the World Cup may be next Thursday but the following day is when the fierce competition starts in Group B. Group B throws together the two finalists from the last World Cup, Spain and Netherlands, the plucky outsiders Australia and a South American dark horse in Chile.
This could turn out to be the most intriguing group of all, starting with the titanic clash between Spain and Netherlands and potentially culminating in a winner takes all game with Chile taking on Netherlands. Spain have to be favourites to progress and will want to finish top to avoid Brazil in the Round of 16 and although Australia will be tough to beat I think they can book their return tickets to Sydney after the group stages.
Let’s have a look at the teams and players to watch in Group B:
FIFA Ranking – 1st
Spain’s squad reads like who’s who of world class performers and this team have dominated international football in recent years, winning the last two European Championships and the last World Cup. The tricky thing for your fantasy team could be working out who will play up front and in midfield.
Players to watch
Pedro – The Barcelona wideman bagged 4 goals in qualifying and 19 goals in La Liga this season and should find himself playing a key role for the holders.
Sergio Ramos – Spain have an excellent defensive record due to the fact that opposition teams struggle to get the ball off them and Ramos can be very dangerous from set-pieces as highlighted in Real Madrid’s triumphant Champions League campaign. However, don’t be surprised to see him get sent off as he’s collected a staggering 19 red cards in his Real career.
Diego Costa – Brazilian-born striker Costa only has one cap for his adopted country and shrugged off injury to make the World Cup squad. If he can prove his fitness to coach Del Bosque then he could offer a more physical option up front for the Spaniards.
Prediction – Finalists
FIFA Ranking – 13th
I might be overplaying the advantage that South American teams have over their European rivals from playing on "home soil" but I think that Chile will cause the biggest upset of the group stages by finishing above Netherlands. However, second place in the group will probably land them with the impossible task of matchup with hosts Brazil.
Players to watch
Alexis Sanchez – Sanchez is the undisputed star of the team and would love to get one over his Barcelona teammates. The skilful winger scored 4 goals in qualifying and could be an excellent fantasy addition if he’s classed as a midfielder.
Arturo Vidal – The versatile midfielder has been linked with a move to the English Premiership from Italian giants Juventus and will be hoping to use the World Cup as a springboard to that move. Vidal who is known for his energetic box-to-box abilities, managed 11 goals for Juve this season and will hopefully return to full fitness before the start of the tournament. His role as team penalty taker could add additional fantasy value.
Eduardo Vargas – Right-sided attacker Vargas spent the second half of the 2013-14 season on loan to Valencia from Napoli and could go under the radar during the World Cup while group rivals focus on Alexis Sanchez. Pacey Vargas should not be underestimated though as he already has 13 goals for his country in only 29 appearances.
Prediction – Knocked out in Round of 16
FIFA Ranking – 15th
It seems that barely a tournament goes by without an allegations of infighting in the Dutch camp. While there is nothing to suggest that there are any issues with this Dutch squad the collection of egos that Louis van Gaal has selected could all start to unravel if Spain ease to victory in their opening matchup. However, if they can find a way past Spain to top the group and avoid Brazil in the next round, they certainly have the talent to go far in the World Cup and provide one last hurrah for stars such as van Persie, Robben and Sneijder.
Players to watch
Arjen Robben – Veteran Robben has been cutting in from the right wing for Holland for over a decade but defences still find it difficult to stop the Bayern Munich man finding a way to goal. Robben has an impressive 22 goals for his country but will also be expected to provide ammunition for spearhead Robin van Persie.
Robin van Persie - It is difficult to look beyond the experienced triumvirate of Robben, Sneijder and Man Utd forward van Persie when looking for star men for the Dutch. There are few better goalscorers on their day in world football and the Dutch captain will be hoping to put a disappointing EPL season behind him and add to his tally of 43 international goals.
Daley Blind – He may sound like a newspaper for the visually impaired but Ajax man Blind is actually a versatile left sided defender or midfielder. Son of Netherlands assistant coach Danny, Blind could well use the World Cup to raise his profile with Europe’s bigger clubs.
Prediction – Surprisingly knocked out in group stages
FIFA Ranking – 59th
The Socceroos look to be the odd team out in the Group of Death and could even struggle to record a single point on the big stage despite qualifying for their third consecutive World Cup. The Aussies are looking to blood some young players and are likely to be well organised and hard-working but lack the star quality of their group rivals.
Players to watch
Tim Cahill – New York Red Bulls’ MLS All-Star Cahill may now be in decline on the world stage but he could still be the best source of goals for the men from down under. The former Everton man has made a career of arriving late in the penalty box to score vital goals and will hope to take advantage of his group rivals’ weakness in the air.
Mile Jedinak – The Crystal Palace holding midfielder has had a fine first season in the EPL but probably won’t offer much fantasy value as his primary role will be to halt the opposition rather than add to his short show reel of long-range goals.
Mathew Ryan – Aussie goalkeeper could be one of the busiest players in Group B trying to keep out shots from the likes of Andres Iniesta, Robin van Persie and Alexis Sanchez. Despite only having 6 caps, the 21-year-old has had a fine season in Belgium for Club Brugge and the World Cup could prove to be the making of the young shot stopper.
Prediction – No chance of progressing from the Group of Death.