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The tournament co-favorites kick off

June 15, 2010
By Rachel Ullrich
ESPN.com
(Archive)

What's on the line

Like the Brazil-North Korea game Tuesday, this matchup's result is rather a foregone conclusion. Spain should win -- should win handily -- and should make it out at the top of Group H without a problem. The squad has dominated the international scene for two years now, and most pundits expect that reign to continue through the World Cup. In this game, Spain will begin its campaign to show the world whether its title credentials are legitimate or whether it will buckle under the pressure.

Style and tactics

Spain's passing game, at its finest, is a work of art. The squad is able to string together possessions like no other and is one of the most fluid teams in the Cup. It should outpossess the Swiss by a significant margin and likely will spend much of the game in the final third. With star striker Fernando Torres not fully fit, coach Vincent del Bosque likely will start the game in a 4-5-1 with David Villa up top and his typical stacked midfield able to move up on the wings.

The Swiss, though, are a team that is hard to beat. The squad topped its qualifying group with only three losses and with four shutouts, and is rigid in its defense. With their best offensive players out injured, the Swiss likely will focus on the counterattack, not even attempting to outpossess a team such as Spain.

Players to watch

Xavi, Spain. Without a doubt the most important player on Spain's squad, at least according to his teammates. He is the start of almost all of Spain's midfield play, which in turn dictates the team's rhythym on the entire pitch. The MVP of Euro 2008, Xavi thoroughly disappointed in the 2006 finals in Germany, so he surely will be looking to redeem his Cup reputation. Also keep an eye on David Villa, one of the most talented strikers in the world, and defenders Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos, who provide offensive threats as well.

Blaise Nkufo, Switzerland. The 35-year-old striker has some huge shoes to fill as he steps in to replace talismanic captain and all-time leading scorer Alexander Frei. But Nkufo tied with Frei as leading scorer during the Swiss' qualification, scoring five goals. On top of that, Major League Soccer fans will want to keep an eye on the striker, as he is set to join the Seattle Sounders after the Cup.

What we can expect

Spain will pass, pass and pass again before the squad even thinks of shooting. Short, concise passing through the midfield has become its trademark over the past few years, so Switzerland will attempt to lock down the through-lanes and prevent the Spaniards from maintaining possession. It's hard to imagine La Roja won't find a way to beat the Swiss, though. And when that happens, expect lots of touches on each possession and plenty of plays that start from the back line and go forward -- likely all the way into the Swiss goal.

Intangibles

This Spanish team has never entered a tournament with the pressure it faces in 2010. Traditionally seen as a talented but erratic team that never stays on through an entire series, La Roja changed expectations with their Euro 2008 win. But critics claim the pressure of being co-favorites could send Spain back to its dark days of off-on performances and squad implosions. A strong performance in the opener could go a long way in denying those claims.

Who'll win

The Swiss will try to disconcert the Spaniards, and La Roja no doubt will have to settle some dust after waiting until the final day of the first round to play. But once the squad hits its groove, it will be virtually unstoppable. A lopsided win for the Spaniards will put them fully in control of Group H.

Rachel Ullrich is an editor for ESPN.com.