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In Cleveland, hope dies last

World Cup Preview – Group H

How difficult this group rates depends on which perspective you’re coming from. For the favorite Spain, it’s a relatively average draw. It does get a tough and underrated Chilean team that, if it manages to wrestle the top qualifying position from the Spaniards, could force Spain into a round-of-16 matchup against the Group G winner — likely Brazil.

But neither Honduras nor Switzerland is as threatening, each one being tough enough to draw against Spain if the Spanish are in poor form, but probably not to beat them. While far from being a dream draw for Spain, it certainly would not want to trade positions with Brazil in Group G or perhaps even Germany in the overlooked Group D. But Spain, to state the obvious, does not have to play itself; the other three sides are stuck fighting for one qualifying position and will face one match that will be nearly impossible to win.

On paper, Spain is the favorite to win the whole tournament but Cup aficionados know that something always goes wrong for the Spanish and that subsequently they’ve never gone past the quarters. Historians tend to attribute the team’s lack of good fortune to its traditional lack of unity, which reflects the nation’s atomized regions. (Hence the European joke, “Three Spaniards, four opinions.”)

But Spain is a choke artist no more. It proved as much during Euro 2008, when it romped to the final. Yet this is a different story, a different tournament. One it’s never won before. Spain, in spite of some superb teams, has never cracked the semifinals in the modern era. Along with Brazil, there’s no bigger favorite to win this tournament than Spain. Remarkably, Spain has lost just once in its past 47 games — to the U.S. no less, in last summer’s Confederations Cup — and won all 10 of its World Cup qualifiers.

Yet for all that manpower, there are worries aplenty, all of them related to injury. Team engine Xavi has a torn calf muscle, and could be less than fully fit. Cesc Fabregas has a fractured shin and is racing to make it back in time. Marcos Senna, David Silva and Santi Cazorla have battled bumps and bruises all year, as has Jesus Navas. Striker Fernando Torres isn’t expected to recover from his knee surgery in time for Spain’s opening game.

What’s especially compelling about Spain is that it’s really a cohesive team, rather than a collection of individual talent, and its balance is self-evident, as it places second (behind Brazil in both cases) in both offensive and defensive rating.

Chile, South America’s surprise young team, loves to play offense but, as would be expected, is weaker on the defensive end. Whatever chance it has it owes to ace coach, the Argentine Marcelo “Madman” Bielsa, famous for such eccentric methods as touring zoos for coaching ideas.

The 2010 South American qualifying campaign was among Chile’s most triumphant soccer moments of all time. La Roja finished second to Brazil, scoring only one goal fewer than the five-time World Cup champions. Chile won 10 of 18 matches, while experiencing remarkable success away from home — suggesting this team might have the stuff to compete under difficult conditions.

Switzerland was drawn in a comfortable qualifying group and duly took advantage, topping Greece to earn a direct berth to the finals in South Africa. That top-of-the-table was no foregone conclusion, though: The squad didn’t start off well, blowing a 2-0 lead to tie its opener at Israel, then suffering an embarrassing 2-1 loss — at home — to minnow Luxembourg.

The Swiss, one of the youngest teams at the World Cup, will be hard-pressed to reach the round of 16 for the second straight tournament, since two of its group rivals are favorite Spain and Chile, which impressed in South American qualifying. Since the last World Cup, where it was eliminated by Ukraine on penalties, Switzerland has played 16 matches against other World Cup qualifiers — among the most by any team — and is 6-8-2 against that competition. That speaks to a team which is perhaps slightly too inconsistent to qualify out of a tough draw.

Honduras are hardly a historical power in North American football. The Central American nation of just under eight million people has only qualified for the World Cup once before in its history, in 1982. Their biggest success on the international stage was probably during the controversial Copa América 2001, where Argentina dropped out due to security concerns. An undermanned Honduras team who arrived just one day before the tournament began was able to advance out of their group and upset Brazil in the quarterfinals before finally losing to hosts Colombia. This Honduras side is not like those of the ‘80s and ‘90s, though; three of their players are first team regulars in the English Premier League. They truly are the third most talented team in a CONCACAF region that’s deeper than it was in those days, but they are surely not without shortcomings.

The Catrachos represent a nation thrilled to be participating in its second World Cup, and first since 1982. Honduras qualified on the last day of CONCACAF’s hexagonal, thanks to a win over El Salvador which lifted it past Costa Rica into third place.

Information for this preview was researched, and more team information is available, here, here, here, here and here.

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