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Neil Humphreys
Wednesday, Jun 4, 2014

Sports

World Cup: MOnster match-ups

The New Paper | Neil Humphreys | Wednesday, Jun 4, 2014

Dutch forward Arjen Robben (L) vies for the ball with Ghanian midfielder Michael Essien (2nd L) during the friendly football match Netherlands vs Ghana at the Kuip Stadium in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, on May 31, 2014.

With all due respect to fans of Ecuador and Honduras in Singapore, their Group E encounter is not likely to involve caffeine injections to stay awake. It's not a game to get pulses racing.

Fortunately, there are some pumping powerhouses participating in fixtures that will be required viewing.

Here are the best of the monster match-ups that you would be a fool - or an Ecuador or Honduras fan - to miss.

1) BRAZIL v CROATIA

(Group A June 13, all Singapore dates)

The opener will arguably determine the mood of the entire tournament. Brazil's overblown, over-budgeted preparations have polarised a nation.

Protests are planned around Sao Paulo ahead of the game, which will be discreetly pushed back from the stadium by the overt military presence (as part of Brazil's US$900 million security budget). Sport has stopped wars, but on this occasion the hosts will settle for temporary appeasement.

Brazil's performance in their opening game cannot be overstated. Win and they are on their way and Big Phil Scolari will galvanise national spirit and wrap it around his squad.

Lose or play poorly and fuel will swiftly be added to the protestors' fires. Neymar (above) proved at the Confederations Cup that he absorbed pressure, wearing it like a warm, familiar jacket.

But so does Luka Modric. The Champions League winner flourishes at the heart of Niko Kovac's 4-2-3-1 formation, with Mario Mandzukic at its apex.

Mandzukic (right) against Thiago Silva, Modric against Paulinho, Neymar against his own hype, the World Cup's PR army against the protestors; battles will be waged inside the stadium and across Sao Paulo. So much rides on this game.

2) SPAIN v HOLLAND (Group B, June 14)

A replay of the 2010 World Cup final will either be one for the ages or retreading old ground. There's a fine line between being a classic vintage or slightly stale.

Neither side present quite the same threat of malevolence as they did four years ago. Despite being world and European champions, the Spaniards are viewed almost patronisingly, an endangered species on the verge of extinction.

They are giant pandas of the game; universally loved, but threatened by merciless predators. Tiki-taka once terrified, now it feels twee and quaint.

Holland are labelled an experimental side with no real identity. Some of the old guard are gone, Louis van Gaal has tinkered and Rafael van der Vaart has been sent home injured.

The Dutch strengths in attack - Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben and Jeremain Lens - are in stark contrast to the Spaniards. Diego Costa is injured, Fernando Torres is less effective and David Villa is willing but he's 33. Spain's victory should come from midfield, where Andreas Iniesta is 30, Xabi Alonso 32 and Xavi 34. A defeat here means the losing side must beat Chile or they're heading home within 10 days.

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