Spain’s bid to repeat as champion has the unenviable task of beginning in a World Cup group with the Netherlands, Chile and Australia.
Three of the four should contend for a spot in the knockout phase, with plucky Australia looking overmatched but able to spoil the hopes of the others.
Spain and the Netherlands play on June 13 at Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador, while Chile could take an early lead in Group B with its opener against Australia at the Arena Pantanal in Cuiaba.
Here are five things to know about Group B:
With Brazil a potential opponent in the round of 16, no team can afford a poor start in Group B.
Spain lost its opening match at the World Cup four years ago, but went on to beat the Netherlands in the final. This year, those same two teams meet in one of the most anticipated opening matches of the tournament.
The rematch is likely to produce a different spectacle than four years ago when the Dutch soured their tournament run with a physical, defensive display that has come to be symbolized by Nigel de Jong’s kung-fu style kick to the chest of Spain midfielder Xabi Alonso.
SPAIN ON COURSE
Spain has not lost a step as it vies to win a fourth straight major tournament with a core squad that is likely playing its final World Cup.
Spain’s schedule is perhaps the toughest, as it follows up its match against the Netherlands by playing Chile on June 18 at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro.
“We’ll have to be ready from Day 1,” Spain coach Vicente del Bosque said after the draw. “With this selection of rivals, we cannot afford to let our concentration slip one bit. The Netherlands will demand our best.”
Spain finishes group play against Australia, where anything but a victory would be a shock.
Now led by coach Louis van Gaal, the Netherlands is always a contender but goes into the World Cup on the heels of flopping at Euro 2012.
The Dutch went unbeaten in World Cup qualifying, winning nine of their 10 games after Bert van Marwijk’s exit following the poor performance in Poland and Ukraine.
Van Gaal, who will be replaced by Guus Hiddink after the tournament, has rebuilt the team to play more attractive attacking football.
Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben continue to spark the Oranje, but Van Persie must seize the opportunity after the Manchester United striker has scored only once at the last two major tournaments, the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012.
Chile is stronger and more dangerous than four years ago, when it also met Spain in group play before being eliminated by Brazil in the last 16.
This time around, the South Americans are lurking, waiting to take advantage of any slip-up by either Spain or the Netherlands.
Juventus midfielder Arturo Vidal and Barcelona forward Alexis Sanchez will be the key players for Chile, which has steadied under coach Jorge Sampaoli since he took over two years ago.
AUSSIES IN TOUGH SPOT
All three group contenders know victory against Australia will be crucial to advancing. Australia is well aware, too.
“All of the pressure is on our rivals, they are under pressure to win and we’re not going to make it easy for them,” Australia coach Ange Postecoglou said. “We know it’s very difficult for us to advance, hopefully we can surprise them.”
Australia won one of its group games in South Africa four years ago, but will find it difficult to repeat that feat with an inexperienced squad that is being groomed for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.