By Neil Maidment
SALVADOR, Brazil, June 11 (Reuters) - Spain will be lifted by a reminder of the glory of four years ago as the defence of their World Cup crown begins against 2010 finalists the Netherlands in Salvador on Friday in a standout Group B opener.
Spain, also 2008 and 2012 European Championship winners, arrive in Brazil with 16 players retained from the squad that triumphed in South Africa, the most returned at the following World Cup by any world champion, with many still bearing the scars of a bruising encounter with the Dutch in 2010.
Spain dominated possession in Johannesburg and took a barrage of heavy tackles by a fierce Dutch defensive guard, but fans streaming to the Fonte Nova arena will be hoping for a more attacking treat this time around as Xavi, Andres Iniesta and David Silva's superb passing game comes up against a Dutch counter attack possessing Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie.
Vincent Del Bosque's La Roja, bolstered this time by the prolific Brazilian-born Diego Costa, begin among the favourites for the tournament in Brazil, where success would see them become the first Europeans to win the World Cup in the Americas.
Much has been made of the addition of Costa, who hails from Lagarto in the north east of Brazil and whose family will travel the 350 kilometres to Salvador to see him take on the Dutch. His presence in Spain's starting XI will bring added value to a team who have often played without a traditional centre-forward.
A revelation in La Liga last season with 36 goals as Atletico won the title, Costa has reacted angrily to claims from Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari that he had offered him the chance to play at the World Cup, insisting only Spain called.
Costa will lead an otherwise familiar line-up in Salvador with defenders Cesar Azpilicueta, Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique, and Jordi Alba in front of goalkeeper Iker Casillas, and the dynamic midfield of Xabi Alonso, Sergio Busquets, Silva, Xavi and Iniesta helping Costa unlock a Dutch side set-up to counter.
The Dutch tactics under coach Louis van Gaal have been hotly debated in the Brazil build-up after he opted to ditch a traditional 4-3-3 approach in favour of a 5-3-2, after losing midfield king pin Kevin Strootman to long-term injury and favouring a more pressing approach.
"I don't think at the moment we are capable of playing tika taka," Arjen Robben, told Dutch team website Ons Oranje. "The counter is a very dangerous weapon that we will be certainly using at this tournament."
While Van Gaal has also pushed to blood more youngsters into the national side, his team to face Spain will include a core of household names, including a rejuvenated Wesley Sneijder who has bounced back from losing the captaincy and his place in the side to take a key role as provider for Robben and Van Persie.
Sneijder will play just in front of midfield enforcer Nigel de Jong - fortunate to stay on the pitch in the 2010 final after a kung-fu kick on Xabi Alonso - and Jonathan de Guzman if fit. Ron Vlaar will lead a back line including the promising Daley Blind, son of Danny who becomes Dutch coach in 2016.
Van Persie's form and fitness is key to Van Gaal's plans. The captain endured a stop-start domestic campaign and while he has said he is fit for the World Cup after some niggling injuries, the jury is still out after not looking completely comfortable in training.
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- Arjen Robben
- Diego Costa
- Andres Iniesta