Most of the headlines focus around Group G, the consensus “Group of Death” with Brazil, Portugal, Côte d’Ivoire, and North Korea, and the pairing of England and the United States in Group C. For Spain and manager Vicente del Bosque, privately they will be happy with their draw in Group H, the match schedule in terms of time, and the general lack of travel for their opening three games.
There are another six months until the World Cup to discuss Spain’s three national team opponents and their tactics and players, but a cursory assessment is appropriate at this junction. Switzerland won their group in UEFA qualifying, but many considered their group one of the weakest, if not the weakest, group in Europe. They held off Greece on the last qualifying round to win the group when they drew 0-0 at St. Jakob-Park in Basel against Israel. They have some quality players, including their scoring stalwarts Alexander Frei and Hakan Yakin, but they would not be considered to have one of the more talented squads in the World Cup Finals.
Honduras should send the United States national team some of their savory coffee beans for which they are known because Jonathan Bornstein’s 94th minute header to earn a draw against Costa Rica gave the invitation to Honduras to qualify automatically as the third place team in CONCACAF. Los Catrachos have a formidable strike force with the old warhorse Carlos Pavón and arguably the most talented player in the CONCACAF region in David Suazo, currently on loan at Benfica from his parent club Inter Milan.
Their strength lies within the central midfield with the brawn and brass of Wigan Athletic’s Hendry Thomas and Tottenham Hotspur’s Wilson Palacios. They continually impress in the Premier League within the engine rooms of their respective teams, and that form has carried into their play with the national team. Whether they can stifle Spain for a full ninety minutes is doubtful, but La Furia Roja should expect a bruising match with little to no space on the ball.
The Chilean national team is the mystery team of this group and possibly of the whole thirty-two team contingent heading to South Africa. They qualified with one match to spare and eventually finished second in CONMEBOL, no small achievement. These cumulative results in this session of qualifiers are not typical of recent Chilean sides, who have missed the last two World Cups and have not reached the semifinals of the Copa América since 1999.
This renaissance of Chilean football starts with manager Marcelo Bielsa and his willingness to employ the burgeoning young talent in Chile. Players such as Mark González, Fabián Orellana of Xerez, and Udinese’s wunderkind Alexis Sánchez have invigorated this perpetually underachieving squad. While Bielsa focuses on an attacking philosophy, he will need to shore up the defense, which was only sixth out of the ten teams in CONMEBOL with twenty-two goals allowed in eighteen matches. Out of the three teams Spain will face in Group H, Chile looks the most likely to achieve a result against Spain.
The schedule also favors Spain in their quest to add a World Cup trophy to their European Championships triumph. They have the late kickoff for all three match days, and after their opening match against Switzerland in Durban, their next two matches are within miles of each other in Johannesburg and Pretoria respectively. Vicente del Bosque, while never completely satisfied with himself or his team, will be somewhat content that the draw, on paper, seems to favor Spain to win their group and do that comfortably, both on and off the pitch. Should they reach the knockout stage, they could face the second-place team from Group G, the Group of Death, but the first step includes qualifying to that stage, and del Bosque and the team will not take that for granted.