Liam Hoden’s World Cup Watch: The defending champions step up

Can Andres Iniesta and Spain find the golden touch once again?
Can Andres Iniesta and Spain find the golden touch once again?
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Welcome to day two of my World Cup Watch as the action really begins in earnest.

Three games, including a repeat of the 2010 final. The perfect Friday night.

I want to hear your thoughts on what you’ve seen and what you are expecting from the games ahead. Comment below or visit our Facebook page The Star Sport to let us know your views.

LAST NIGHT

We’re underway at last and it proved a particularly intriguing game to kick things off.

ITV treated us, for some reason, to three former footballers all wearing the same light blue shirts as part of their panel.

Whether it was that or the presence of Adrian Chiles that caused the ITV studio to be pelted by protestors during the evening is questionable.

As for the opening game, anyone expecting a Brazilian rout would have been sorely disappointed as Croatia proved a testing opposition.

The 3-1 scoreline was certainly flattering and helped along the way with some questionable refereeing decisions.

The Croatians deserve plenty of credit for their approach, denying Brazil time on the ball and showing fine composure in possession.

A Marcelo own goal gave Croatia the lead but Brazil hit back with a strike from range from the brilliant Neymar.

From here, Croatia could bemoan some poor refereeing decisions, particularly with the penalty decision which saw Neymar grab his second. Fred felt a grip on his arm from Dejan Lovren and tumbled backwards for the softest of soft penalties.

Croatian keeper Stipe Pletikosa got both hands to Neymar’s penalty but could not keep it out. Pletikosa could feel disappointed by his part in all three goals with his positioning letting him down for the first and third.

Croatia had an equaliser ruled out for a foul on keeper Julio Cesar which was also questionable before impressive Chelsea midfielder Oscar toe poked home a third for Brazil to make sure of the win.

Highlights

- Luiz Gustavo’s moustache

- The brilliant rendition of the Brazil national anthem from fans and players alike. The team sang it with aggression resembling a Haka and the crowd inserted a second verse FIFA had clearly not planned for

- Clive Tyldesley’s consistent bewilderment that Luka Modric had cut his hair, rendering him ‘unrecognisable’

- Oscar’s show-stealing performance. Brazilians were calling for the Chelsea man to be dropped after poor performances but he showed exactly why Luiz Felipe Scolari kept the faith

- Scolari rocking the old gent in trainers look on the touchline which we all expect from him

TONIGHT’S GAMES

Group A: Mexico v Cameroon, Natal, 5pm kick off, ITV

Cameroon only arrived in Brazil a few days ago after protracted negotiations over bonuses, hardly ideal preparation.

They limped into the competition in the first place after Togo were found guilty of fielding an ineligible player. And the infighting that has blighted the squad for years continues to have an affect.

It is these off the field matters which are likely to have a greater effect on how they perform than anything else.

Cameroon have three strong attackers in Samuel Eto’o, Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting and Vincent Aboubakar and have a decent defence so they are more than capable of holding their own.

Mexico also limped to Brazil with two late goals from the US against Panama keeping them in a play-off place. Their qualification was a shambles with four managers and 47 players used.

Current boss Miguel Herrera has opted for a dynamic 5-3-2 formation, heavily relying on wing backs but the results were not positive in the warm ups.

Herrera does have a clinical striker in Oribe Peralta, who lit up the Olympics two years ago.

Both teams prospects will rely heavily on the outcome of this game as they look to build confidence in their opener.

Team news

Giovani dos Santos will start ahead of Manchester United’s Javier Hernandez for Mexico while Guillermo Ochoa will start in goal in place of Jose Corona.

Cameroon skipper Samuel Eto’o is a doubt after missing training regularly in the last few weeks. Midfielder Jean Makoun is unlikely to start after his recent return from an ankle problem.

Verdict

A real nothing-between-them game as the two sides look to shake off poor build-ups to the competition. If Mexico can get their wing backs into the game they should find the edge.

Betting

Mexico 5/4 Draw 11/5 Cameroon 5/2

Closer to home

Mexico: Javier Hernandez (Manchester United).

Cameroon: Benoit Assou-Ekotto (Tottenham), Samuel Eto’o (Chelsea).

Group B: Spain v Holland, Salvador, 8pm kick off, BBC One

This repeat of the 2010 final will really kick start the competition as Spain begin their quest to become the first nation for 12 tournaments to successfully defend the World Cup.

But this year’s World Cup is the biggest test to Spanish dominance they have faced since emerging as the best on the planet.

No European side has ever won a World Cup in South America. Doing so would only further enhance claims of this Spanish generation being international team of all time.

They travel to Brazil with the best squad in the competition, with no doubts over their style of play and with a tremendous amount of confidence as a group.

Questions were asked of Spain when they were outplayed and dominated by Brazil, in Brazil, in last year’s Confederations Cup final. But you would be foolish to write off the Spanish after one big blow.

Being written off is exactly what has befell Holland with many predicted they won’t emerge from Group B.

The talented individuals like Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie and Wesley Sneijder remain but as always there are doubts about their ability to work well together.

And there is a distinct lack of real quality elsewhere in a side that appears to be deep into a transition which will only accelerate when boss Louis van Gaal leaves after the tournament.

Doubts have been raised about van Gaal’s tactical tinkering in the warm-ups but this could prove Holland’s best weapon against three very different teams in the group.

Team news

Spain have a clean bill of health with Atletico Madrid striker Diego Costa back from injury.

Swansea’s Jonathan de Guzman is fit for Holland after a hamstring injury. Wesley Sneijder could win his 100th cap tonight.

Verdict

Dutch boss van Gaal has experimented tactically in this build-up and may have an ace up his sleeve to tackle the Spanish. But Spain really should take victory against a Holland side far less talented than the one they met in the final four years ago.

Betting

Spain 5/6 Draw 12/5 Holland 9/2

Closer to home

Spain: Cesc Fabregas, Cesar Azpilicueta (both Chelsea), David de Gea, Juan Mata (both Manchester United), Santi Cazorla (Arsenal), David Silva (Manchester City).

Holland: Ron Vlaar (Aston Villa), Jonathan de Guzman, Michel Vorm (both Swansea), Robin van Persie (Manchester United), Leroy Fer (Norwich City), Tim Krul (Newcastle).

Group B: Chile v Australia, Cuiaba, 11pm kick off, ITV

If there is any team in the competition worth staying up to see, it is the Chileans, especially in a game they could easily dominate.

The Australians could very easily prove to be the whipping boys in this year’s World Cup, to the disappointment of almost no one.

The golden generation of the Socceroos has almost gone with Tim Cahill and Mark Bresciano the only big stars remaining.

Coach Ange Postecoglou has opted to blood youngsters in this tournament with a firm eye on the future.

And blood might be the most apt term as his side kick off against the relentless Chile.

In a world of counterattacking football, Chile are different. They press high up the pitch and attack from there. Little regard is given to actual defence, they look to overwhelm the opposition with intense pressure. It’s thrilling stuff when they are at their best.

Many are labelling Chile the dark horses of the competition and if they find their best they will certainly be a force to be reckoned with. But they have often dominated games only to fail to get the results. With a tough group before they even get to the knockout stages, they cannot afford to be profligate.

Team news

Arturo Vidal could be fit for Chile after training fully for the last three days.

Australia coach Ange Postecoglou has a dilemma over veteran midfielder Mark Bresciano who has been suffering from back problems.

Verdict

Australia have pledged not to park the bus in their opening game which will be music to Chilean ears. It’s hard to look past anything but a win for Chile, who should press the life out of the learning Aussies and bag a few goals along the way. Chile have a knack of failing to convert dominance into results so will be keen to make hay ahead of clashes with Spain and Holland.

Betting

Chile 4/9 Draw 7/2 Australia 9/1

Closer to home

Chile: Jean Beausejour (Wigan), Gary Medel (Cardiff), Gonzalo Jara (Nottingham Forest).

Australia: Bailey Wright (Preston), Mile Jedinak (Crystal Palace), Massimo Luongo (Swindon).

ENGLAND

One day to go and the pitch in Manaus is being absolutely slated. Even the groundsman says it’s rubbish.

With difficult climate conditions and a poor playing surface, England are really going to have to turn in a performance to get something from what will be a cagey game with Italy.

You have the faith, don’t you?