The exciting Group B kicks off on Friday afternoon. The headline clash features Spain and the Netherlands in a rematch of the last World Cup final. The second matchup of Chile against Australia is less likely to be competitive but should be a wonderful showcase for the dynamic, high-pressing Chilean style of soccer.
Those who have been reading my World Cup preview pieces will not be surprised to see that I rate Spain as strong favorites in the group and the Netherlands as underdogs for second place and qualification.
I have Chile as solid favorites to qualify out of a difficult group, with a chance of reaching the knockout stages around 60 percent. That Chile has reached this position is a testament to the turnaround of the national team under new Coach Jorge Sampaoli.
World Cup fans will remember the fantastically enjoyable high-pressing and quick-attacking style of the 2010 Chilean team under visionary Manager “El Loco” Marcelo Bielsa. When Bielsa resigned in 2011, the Chilean football association attempted to retain continuity by hiring another manager who prized attacking play in Boca Juniors’ Claudio Borghi. But while Bielsa is an idealist who loves the beautiful game, he also believes the heart of a good attack is an effective defense. His players need extreme fitness and discipline to play his high-intensity defensive style. Borghi’s team could score beautiful goals, but they were cut open again and again in qualifying. Through the end of 2012, Chile was 4-0-5 in qualifying and had let in 18 goals in 9 matches.
Borghi was sacked and replaced with Jorge Sampaoli. Sampaoli is as pure a Bielsa disciple as exists in world soccer, and he immediately reinstituted the defensive structure that had been lacking under Borghi. Chile allowed just seven goals in their last seven matches, winning five, drawing one and losing just one. These results saw Chile through easily to the World Cup.
Expected goals tell the same story. Under Borghi Chile was below average in expected goals ratio. Sampaoli got the defense in order and under his watch Chile cut its expected goals conceded by 50 percent.
To check how much effect Sampaoli has had on the team, I went back and ran my projections based on just matches through the end of 2012, before Borghi was sacked. I had Chile rated as a roughly average World Cup side, unlikely to advance from the group. Sampaoli’s influence has brought Chile to a rating about 20 percent better than average and made the South Americans solid favorites to move on to the knockouts.
Also more than favored in this group, of course, is Spain. I rate their chances of advancing to the group stages over 90 percent. As with Brazil in Group A, the questions for Spain will likely be raised later in the knockouts. As has been the case for a half-decade, Spain’s center forward position remains a source of controversy.
Spain’s strength is their midfield anchored by Sergio Bousquets, probably the greatest defensive midfielder in world soccer. While Xavi is aging, Andres Iniesta remains a creative force and Xabi Alonso still delivers some of the most perfect long passes in the game. But at the top of the formation, a number of strikers have come and gone. Manager Vicente del Bosque hopes to have Atletico Madrid forward Diego Costa fit by match time on Friday, but that would require an abnormally quick recovery from a hamstring injury.
If Costa cannot play, Spain may attempt instead to play a false nine in Cesc Fabregas. Fabregas is not an elite goal-scorer himself, but he would drop into positions between the lines and look to pick out runners either from midfield or the flanks. For Barcelona this year Fabregas was fantastic at making precisely these sorts of game-breaking passes.
He was second in La Liga in expected assists per 90 minutes, and he played far more completed through-balls than anyone else in the Spanish league. If Spain cannot get a proper striker fit and firing, the man to watch is Cesc Fabregas. He will need to be the forward engine of the attack if Spain is to defend the Cup.
All data provided by Opta unless otherwise noted.
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Michael Caley writes for Cartilage Free Captain, where he analyzes fancy soccer statistics and bemoans Tottenham Hotspur’s most recent failures. You can follow him on twitter at @MC_of_A. My full World Cup projections and methodology can be found at SB Nation.