World Cup Group H Predictions:
The tournament curse was finally broken when Group H and finals favorite Spain won Euro 2008 and claimed their first major trophy in 40 years. It all came undone however when La Roja followed up by losing to the USA in the 2009 Confederations Cup semifinal, ending their 35 match unbeaten streak. This is Spain’s 12th World Cup appearance and while success has always eluded the team, the current line up appears poised to repeat France’s feat in 1998 and 2000 of simultaneously holding the European and World Cup titles. Supremo Vicente del Bosque has plenty of experience and has reached the heights at club level with Real Madrid, winning two UEFA Champions Leagues, two La Liga titles, a Spanish Super Cup, a UEFA European Super Cup, and the Toyota Intercontinental Cup. Now he will set his sights on leading his side to their first World Cup title. There will be no shortage of talent to accomplish the task. The current squad is loaded with a combination of experience and youth, with a majority of players in their prime. However, the team could be without Liverpool striker Fernando Torres, who underwent an operation on a torn cartilage in his right knee in April, sidelining him for the end of the Barclays Premier League season and leaving him with a race to be fit for the World Cup. But the side has plenty of other stars ready to step up should Torres’ return be delayed. The team is perfectly balanced from goalpost to goalpost, with Iker Casillas between the sticks, Sergio Ramos and Carles Puyol in defense, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, and Xabi Alonso in the middle, and Barcelona striker David Villa providing the deadly finishing. La Roja charged through qualifying scoring a perfect ten wins in ten matches and were the European Zone’s second top scorers with 28 goals while conceding just five at the other end.
Don’t underestimate Chile. The 1962 World Cup hosts qualified for the eighth time with ease, and are back in the World Cup for the first time since France 1998. The Chileans famous forward duo of Marcelo Salas and Ivan Zamorano has given way to a new generation of players who have emerged and are ready to emulate their predecessors while advancing beyond the group phase in South Africa this summer. They are led by Argentinean coach Marcelo Bielsa, also known as El Loco for his unique dedication to the game, who took the reigns in 2007. The 54-year-old’s only World Cup experience came by way of a first-round exit of Argentina at the FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan 2002. Now the former Argentina de Rosario defender will use his tactical genius, along with a hungry, mostly inexperienced but skilled squad, to make a deep run in South Africa this June. The Chileans have probably the youngest squad in the tournament. With the average age hovering around 23 years old. One fresh face to look out for is Udinese in Serie A striker Alexis Sanchez. Chile’s attack is also fueled by the midfield creativity of Sporting Lisbon’s Matias Fernandez and Al Ain’s Jorge Valdivia, as well as Sanchez’s strike partner Humberto Suazo, who lead the squad with 10 goals during their qualifying campaign. Other notable non-household names are West Brom defender Gonzalo Jara — the only Chilean in the squad currently based in the English Championship League, and former Liverpool winger Mark Gonzales, now with CSKA Moscow. La Roja finished a best ever second, just one point behind perennial powerhouse Brazil in South American qualifying.
The group’s darkhorse has got to be the Swiss, who are making their ninth FIFA World Cup finals appearance and their second in a row. The Swiss were quarterfinal regulars in the 1930’s and 50’s, but the team hasn’t done better than a round of 16 finish in Germany 2006, were they were eliminated on penalties by the Ukraine. The current team is hoping at least to emulate the achievements of their forebears with a trip to the finals in 2010. Ottmar Hitzfeld, former Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich boss, took the national helm after Switzerland’s disappointing showing at UEFA EURO 2008. One of only two men to win the Champions League with two different clubs, “der General” brings a wealth of knowledge and quiet resolve to the Swiss squad. Switzerland boast a blend of youth and experience, combining talented younger players such as Eren Derdiyok, Tranquillo Barnetta and keeper Diego Benaglio with seasoned campaigners like Basel star striker and Switzerland’s all-time leading scorer Alexander Frei and Blaise N’Kufo. Frei, the national team captain, finished the qualifying campaign with five goals. He will no doubt rely on the Leverkusen duo of Barnetta and Derdiyok to supply him with steady service up top, while Arsenal defender Philippe Senderos –on loan to Everton –will be called upon to stop the opposition’s attack. Switzerland’s qualifying run started disastrously, but must have been the perfect wakeup call as the team rebounded with six victories and two draws to clinch top spot in European Group 2, and a draw to South Africa.
Despite qualifying for just its second ever World Cup tournament Honduras should not be overlooked. After taking the job in early 2007, boss Reinaldo Rueda’ has retooled Honduran football into a formidable force. The 42-year-old Colombian strategist has built a side that is run on an aggressive attack as well as a solid backline. Rueda’s claim to fame came during his years as the Colombian Youth Coach, were he led the nations U-20 team to a third place finish in the 2003 FIFA World Youth Championship, and a fourth place finish for the U-17 team that same year at the U-17 World Cup. Honduras is not to be underestimated and boast a number of exports from Central America playing for European teams. Los Catrachos is led by 36-year-old forward Carlos Pavon, who led the team in qualifying with seven goals. He will be aided by Genoa striker David Suazo, Tottenham midfielder Wilson Palacios, Amado Guevara, Maynor Figueroa and Julio Leon of Italy’s Torino. Honduras overcame a devastating home defeat against the Americans in qualifying by winning the team’s final match against El Salvador, and then sweating as Costa Rica held a 2-1 lead in added time against the U.S. at RFK Stadium. Jonathan Bornstein’s headed goal in the final seconds forced Cost Rica into a playoff with Uruguay, while Hondurans celebrated their automatic qualification thanks to the draw.
While Spain has all the right ingredients and put on a dazzling display during qualifying, putting down any of my hard earned pesetas on La Roja to win it all isn’t going to happen. They will make quick work of the group round and will most likely advance out of the semifinals where their run will come to an abrupt end against the Brazilians. Chile could be the one team in this group to steal first from the Spaniards. They have a very young and talented squad that could make a run if they get into the second round. I think many will be surprised as to how hot the Chile team actually is at the moment. Their opening clash with Honduras could well be a fiery encounter while their final group match against Spain is set to be a battle of attacking styles. The Swiss’ World Cup bid will begin with a match against tournament favorites, Spain. If they can beat the Spaniards, it could be a huge momentum shifter that could catapult the squad deep into the tourney. I expect that Switzerland will more than likely be one of two teams playing for second place in the group, with a must win over Chile being the deciding factor for advancement to the Round of 16. Lastly, the Hondurans will certainly not look out of place against any team in their group, but will face formidable obstacles in the form of Spain, Chile and Switzerland to reach the second round. If they can secure a win over Chile and at least a draw with the Swiss, Los Catrachos will be one of the teams battling for the group’s coveted second spot.
Advancing: Spain, Chile