World Cup Group H preview
Spain is loaded with world-class talent and is the clear-cut group favorite
Under Marcelo Bielsa, Chile are a dark horse team with dangerous wingers
Honduras are likely to use a lone forward formation despite calls for two strikers
Projected order of finish:
1. Spain: The European champion is second-favorite behind Brazil for the World Cup and rightly so, given its 10-in-a-row winning streak since the U.S. ended its 35-game unbeaten record at last summer's Confederations Cup. The shape under coach Vicente del Bosque has not changed -- a 4-4-2 which can switch to 4-5-1 with Cesc Fabregas coming in for either David Villa or Fernando Torres -- and the normally-tense relationship between Barcelona and Real Madrid players has eased. However, there are concerns in the camp over the delicate injury situations of Fabregas, Torres, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta, while fullback Joan Capdevila's lack of pace is a weakness. This team has the talent to go a long way, but only if its struggles with the pitches and climate in South Africa last summer were a one-off.
2. Chile: Coach Marcelo Bielsa is the man behind Chile's impressive qualifying campaign, in which it won more matches than any other South American team and beat Argentina for the first time in a competitive match. As he did when coach of Newell's Old Boys, Velez Sarsfeld and Argentina, Bielsa took the 4-3-3 system based on Louis van Gaal's 1990s Ajax team and made it work, with wingers Alexis Sanchez and Mark Gonzalez either side of centre-forward Humberto Suazo, who top-scored in qualifying with 10 goals. Matias Fernandez and Jorge Valdivia are still competing for the playmaker position, as the coach refuses to change the shape and pick both.
3. Switzerland: No coach at this World Cup has won more major trophies than the 18 picked up by Switzerland's German boss Ottmar Hitzfeld, who survived an early qualifying scare when his team was beaten 2-1 at home to lowly Luxembourg. Hitzfeld, helped by recalled striker Blaise N'Kufo, 35, turned things round, and home-and-away wins over Greece took the Swiss top of its group. Hitzfeld has played down the injuries to left back Christophe Spycher and striker Marco Streller which depleted the squad, and insisted the mood is good despite a winless run of four games [Note: they face Italy on Saturday so that could stretch to five games]. Switzerland was the first team in World Cup history to be eliminated without conceding a single goal at the 2006 World Cup (losing on penalties to Ukraine in the second round), and though this side is just as well organized, it has more flair going forward.
4. Honduras: When Honduras played Spain in its first World Cup appearance back in 1982, it took an early lead and held on for a famous 1-1 draw. Their hopes of doing the same this time around look slim, particularly if coach Reinaldo Rueda sticks with the safety-first 4-5-1 formation he used in away matches during World Cup qualifying with little success: its only wins away from home came against Canada and El Salvador. The local press are urging Rueda to play all-time leading scorer Carlos Pavon, who bagged seven goals in nine qualifiers, behind center forward David Suazo. "His decision to start the opening game against Chile with two strikers and a must-win attitude, or a safety-first mind-set where they must not lose, will define the rest of their campaign," El Heraldo newspaper's deputy editor, Alonso Morales, told SI.com. The smart money is on the conservative approach, in the hope that Premier League midfield duo Wilson Palacios (assuming he recovers from his a shin injury) and Hendry Thomas can keep things tight and Suazo, once of Internazionale, can hit teams on the break.
2010 World Cup
1. Xavi Hernandez, Spain -- David Villa or Fernando Torres score the goals but they usually come from a Xavi pass (as in the Euro 2008 final). The Barcelona and Spain playmaker has finally earned recognition for his superb passing -- he was voted Player of the Tournament at Euro 2008 and was fifth in Fifa's 2009 World Player of the Year awards. A former teammate of Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola, who admitted that he knew his playing days were numbered when he saw Xavi, nicknamed "maqui," the machine, in action, the midfielder completed more passes than the entire Arsenal team in Barcelona's recent 4-1 Champions League win. It's a similar story for Spain, whose "tiki-taka" fast-passing style can only work thanks to Xavi. "He's absolutely fundamental to this side," said Spain's captain Carlos Puyol.
2. Humberto Suazo, Chile -- The top scorer in South American qualifying with 10 goals in 18 matches, Suazo moved to Real Zaragoza last January and scored six goals to help the team avoid relegation. A shoulder injury ended his season in April and a recent thigh injury has made him doubtful for the opener against Honduras. But he should be fit for the second game against Switzerland -- not that he might look it. "Wherever I go they crucify me and call me fat, but I'm used to it," he told the Spanish press. Zaragoza's fitness coach Roberto Lasierra responded, telling Spanish newspaper Marca: "He may look fat, but actually he's a brick." Chile's last striking hero, Marcelo Salas, scored four goals at the 1998 World Cup, a record Suazo will be looking to emulate.
3. Blaise Nkufo, Switzerland -- The Kinshasa-born forward was ignored for over five years after falling out with previous Swiss coach Kobi Kuhn and when he was finally recalled in the run-up to Euro 2008, injury cost him a place at the tournament. Now 35, the imposing striker has eased the scoring burden on Switzerland's iconic figure Alex Frei. He has been Twente's top scorer for the last six years and this season, his 12 goals helped the Dutch side win its first league title since 1926. Nkufo will join MLS side Seattle Sounders after the World Cup.
4. Wilson Palacios, Honduras -- There's nothing wrong with aiming high and the Tottenham Hotspur midfielder has always done that. During his stellar last season in north London, he told Diez newspaper, "I dream of playing for Real Madrid." His agent last week admitted that could happen soon. No-one would begrudge him success, after his brother Edwin, 16, was kidnapped and murdered after Palacios had moved to Birmingham City on loan (the suspects charged with his murder escaped from jail last summer, and were found murdered days later). Former Honduras national team psychologist Mauricio Rosales claimed that Palacios had benefited from counselling sessions while the player said, "I have had to suffer a lot to be where I am today." With 62 per cent of Honduras's 7.7 million inhabitants living below the poverty line, Palacios's achievement with Honduras and Tottenham has become a national one: his success stands for hope beyond tragedy, and the whole country is behind him.
Spain may be overrated in some quarters but it should still find this group a stroll, which will leave the Chile-Switzerland clash on June 21 a decisive one. The same round will also tempt David Villa into making his Golden Boot charge, and Honduras's under-pressure local-based goalkeeper Noel Valladares could be left with an uncomfortable goal-difference tally. The biggest problem for Spain if it did finish group winners would only come if Brazil slipped up and came second in Group G -- then they would have to play each other in the second round.
Ben Lyttleton has written about French football for various publications. He edited an oral history of the European Cup, Match of My Life: European Cup Finals, which was published in 2006.