It was unprecedented. Three consecutive major international tournament triumphs ensure that this Spain generation will rank among the greatest teams to have ever played the game. Not only because of the glory they have achieved, but the manner in which they have done it. The beautiful game used to be commonly associated with Brazil and South American flair, yet now it is the Iberian nation that is widely considered as the home of football’s most fascinating team.
What chances are there of retaining their World Cup title and securing their fourth consecutive trophy in Brazil in 2014? The only player who may be uncertain of participating in that competition could well be Xavi, who will be 34 when it rolls around. He may be the heartbeat of the side, but they have an abundance of talent who can step in and attempt to replicate the role of the Barcelona man. Defensively they will remain strong. Even without Carles Puyol at the European Championships they rarely looked troubled and it is this solidity that will provide them with a terrific foundation from which to launch their defence.
The same cannot be said for many of the South American nations, where suspect defences seem endemic and will severely hamper any prospective charges for the trophy and indeed even their qualification for the tournament. Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, Chile and indeed Argentina all have their faults at the back.
Though Ecuador currently sit fourth of nine in the marathon CONMEBOL qualification group for the 2014 World Cup, their lacklustre form away from home could make it difficult for them to maintain that position. Tim Vickery pointed out in his recent article for the BBC that La Tri will need to improve on the road if they want to provide any sort of opposition should they manage to make it to the tournament proper. It is a similar case for Peru who despite vast attacking talent, currently languish at the bottom of the qualifying table and suffer from a lack of quality at the back.
Another squad with a similar imbalance of talent is Chile, yet Claudio Borghi’s side are at the top of the table. Former coach Marcelo Bielsa turned them into one of the neutrals favourites at World Cup 2010 with his novel 3-3-1-3 formation and a philosophy of a possession based, high intensity game. They can count on a vast array of attacking and midfield talent and with their domestic league improving at a rapid rate they should only get better. Tim Vickery noted how they were unfortunate to defeat Spain last September and it was by no means against a second-string side. The threw away a two-goal lead in that game and unfortunately they do not appear to have someone capable of orchestrating a tighter defence in Brazil.
Following recent managerial changes at both Paraguay and Bolivia they must be considered among the outsiders to progress. Dark horses for qualification however are without a doubt Venezuela. Their fourth-place finish at the Copa last year encouraged a number of European-based players to declare their allegiance which added to the squad. Cesar Farias side have shown tremendous resilience despite not possessing huge quality in defence and are capable of giving anyone a game. This was borne out in their defeat of Argentina and a 1-1 draw against Uruguay in Montevideo.
Indeed the Uruguayans should perhaps have done better in that game. Despite a forward line the envy of many teams across the globe with Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, one of their strongest assets is actually the partnership of Diego Perez and Arevalo Rios in midfield. The former will be 34 by the time the World Cup comes around and Uruguay will need to find a similar partner for Arevalo if they are to remain as competitive. Diego Lugano and Diego Forlan could also be on the way out too but there is no shortage of talent to fill those places.
Another of the continents traditional heavyweights Colombia have struggled for consistency in the early stages of their qualification but they too possess an extremely potent attack. If they can ensure qualification then they could well cause some trouble to the favourites. In Radamel Falcao they possess one of the best strikers in the world whilst recent European moves for forwards Dorlan Pabon and Jackson Martinez can only serve to improve that. Along with the craft of James Rodriguez, who shone in the Under-20 World Cup last year, they will provide formidable opposition. But an ageing defence again could cause problems with solidity at the back in Brazil, but their firepower may be enough to counteract that.
Argentina face similar difficulties as defensively they remain week, as was shown by Brazil in the recent friendlies. Alejandro Sabella still searching for the right balance to his side but Lionel Messi is starting to produce his best form at international level at the right time. The criticism regularly levelled at him is that he does not perform for Argentina but nine goals in his last seven games, and eight in his last four, suggest otherwise and his link-up with Sergio Aguero has proved devastating at times.
Then of course there is the hosts, Brazil. It was the right decision not to sack Mano Menezes after an abysmal Copa America campaign but a lack of competitive fixtures will have been frustrating for the coach. He may have stumbled across the core of potentially his best team in the build-up for the Olympics. They will undoubtedly possess the best defence on the continent when the tournament comes and will have to hope that home pressure does not become too great. With the likes of Neymar, Leandro Damiao and Thiago Silva there is plenty of talent throughout the squad that should be more than capable of reaching the latter stages.
Whether any of these sides will be able to overthrow the Spaniards remains to be seen. Brazil surely have the best chance but their home advantage could just as easily work against them due to the fickle nature of their fans. If Argentina can find the right balance to the team, then with Messi leading the charge up the front few would bet against them. Colombia and Uruguay must also not be written off in a tournament that could well see the Jules Rimet trophy heading back to South America.
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