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World Cup Group B Preview: Spain look to begin another title run

By Jeff Borzello | CBSSports.com

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Defending World Cup champions Spain are favorites to make another run. (Getty Images)

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While Group G got most of the attention as the World Cup's most difficult group when the teams were revealed, it's not smart to overlook Group B in terms of quality. It features the champions and runners-up from the 2010 World Cup, plus a team in Chile that may peg as a dark horse in Brazil. Australia doesn't seem like much of a threat, but the battle to advance to the knockout stage should be fierce. There is plenty of talent at the top of this group.

The teams

Spain: The world's top-ranked team in the FIFA rankings, Spain will enter the World Cup as one of the favorites to win the title. They are the defending champions, but some weaknesses have been revealed in the last couple of competitions. Spain won the 2012 Euro Cup, but didn't dominate as they did in the past. Moreover, in last summer's Confederations Cup, they were soundly defeated by Brazil in the final, 3-0. This could be the last major competition for many of the main players, but there is experience and talent abound in the squad.

Netherlands: Holland is always an interesting country to watch in a big competition. They were the runners-up in the 2010 World Cup, and one of the favorites back at the 2012 Euro Cup – but that was a disaster, as they lost all three of their group games and were bounced quickly. On the other hand, they absolutely dominated in the qualifying stage, grabbing 28 points from a possible 30, with a goal differential of 29 over 10 games. There's a better mix of veterans and youth than in 2012.

Chile: A country many had pegged as a darkhorse when the groups were announced suffered a tough blow in early May, when star midfielder Arturo Vidal underwent knee surgery. He is expected to be fit for the World Cup, but there was no timetable given for his return. If he is healthy, Chile will fight for a spot in the knockout stage. They press high up the pitch, looking to create issues for the opponents. Combine that with a quality striker in Alexis Sanchez (18 goals for Barcelona this season), and Chile have a chance to advance on their home continent.

Australia: The Socceroos won just three of their eight qualifying matches, but made it through after finishing second in their group behind Japan. This will be their first competition with new manager Ange Postecoglou, who took over for Holger Osieck after Osieck was sacked in October. It's an aging group, with the top eight minute-getters in qualifying all 29 or older.

The key players

Andres Iniesta: Spain have a variety of playmakers and weapons in the midfield and in the attacking band, but Iniesta is the most dangerous – and on a side that often plays a false nine instead of a striker, someone with the incisiveness of Iniesta is key. He was named Man of the Match in both the 2010 World Cup Final and 2012 Euro Cup Final.

Robin Van Persie: When healthy on in form, Van Persie is one of the most dangerous strikers in the world. But his injury history has hindered him at times, and he's missed games with a groin strain, hamstring injury and knee injury this season for Manchester United. He was the team's leading scorer in qualification, netting 11 goals and two assists in nine matches.

Arturo Vidal: As mentioned above, Vidal's health is the key for Chile. He is arguably the most complete midfielder in the world, capable of igniting the attack and setting up teammates for goals. He has also improved his own scoring rate, finding the back of the net 11 times this season for Juventus. Chile's defensive record in qualifying wasn't great, so it's on Vidal to control the middle of the park and not allow other teams to dominate possession.

Mile Jedinak: The Crystal Palace captain is hoping to carry his recent form into the World Cup. He's started all 37 Premier League matches for Palace this season, and was the club's player of the year last season as Palace were promoted from the Championship. His physicality suits the Socceroos.

How the group should play out

This group should be fascinating. Spain are the favorites to advance – and one of the favorites to win the title. Australia are the most likely to finish at the bottom of the group. That leaves Chile and the Netherlands to fight it out over the second knockout stage position. Chile's high-pressure style will be tough to beat on their home continent, and they have the strike-force up top to pile up goals. They are vulnerable at the back, which could be an issue against Spain's playmakers and Netherlands' veteran combination of Van Persie and Robben. The group opener between Spain and Netherlands should be telling for the rest of the group. If Spain win – and Chile presumably beats Australia – it could be a difficult hole for Netherlands. I'm pegging Spain to win the group, and Chile to hold off Netherlands for second.

Our predictions

Group B Predictions
Prediction
Jason
La Canfora
Jeff
Borzello
Tom
Fornelli
Evan
Hilbert
Jerry
Hinnen
Mike
Singer
1st
Spain
Spain
Spain
Spain
Netherlands
Spain
2nd
Netherlands
Chile
Netherlands
Netherlands
Spain
Netherlands
3rd
Chile
Netherlands
Chile
Chile
Chile
Chile
4th
Australia
Australia
Australia
Australia
Australia
Australia
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