On Sunday, July 11, Spain and the Netherlands clash to decide which country can dub itself “World Champion” in soccer. Before that, Germany and Uruguay decide who gets the third place (Saturday, July 10). The European Championships no longer feature this third place match and FIFA would be wise to do the same regarding the World Cup.
Puyol doesn’t score much, both for Spain and for Barcelona. But his header provided Spain a well-deserved ticked to the final, as they beat Germany 1-0. Germany could not have enough ball possession and their chances to score were almost nonexistent. The Spaniards had plenty of chances to score and the only point against them is the fact that they are not putting games away, staying with a 1-0 advantage. Still, Spain beat Germany in the European Championships and did the same in the World Cup. This time Villa didn’t score, Torres came on as a substitute (as expected) and “Don” Pedro Rodriguez squandered the best chance to get his side ahead 2-0. Do not be surprised if Pedro does not start on Sunday; after, he only squandered the chance because he was blatantly selfish. Schweinsteiger was great for Germany, a hard-working player throughout the entire game, but Germany’s creative units (Özil and Podolski, as Müller served a one-game suspension) were completely nullified by Spain’s midfield and defense. Klose’s attempt to catch Ronaldo (Brazil) as the all-time top scorer in World Cups goes through tomorrow’s game against Uruguay.
The Dutch came in as heavy favorites against Uruguay and they were able to rule the game for the majority of the time, even if they inexplicably lost momentum and the control of the game clearly shifted in Uruguay’s favor. Veteran Van Bronckhorst scored one of the tournament’s finest goals – if not the absolute finest – with a thundering shot from outside the box. Forlán, Uruguay’s main star, scored himself with a good shot from outside of the box; bear in mind that goalkeeper Stekelenburg came in to this game regarded as one of the tournament’s best keepers, but the the way he let this goal in somewhat tainted his overall performance. Then Sneijder and Robben put the Dutch ahead 3-1 and everything seemed finished. Not exactly. The South Americans tried to come back with yet another gritty, never say die, blast of attitude that has marked Uruguay’s play in the tournament. Maxi Pereira was able to reduce the score to 3-2 and they just came short. Nonetheless, Uruguay’s “raza” in this World Cup has been a joy to watch, and they will have their new national hero, Suárez, back for the match against Germany.
But now let us focus on the important match at hand.
A few interesting facts about this final:
- Spain are coming in as European Champions
- The Dutch have been to two WC finals and lost both times
- Both Spain and the Netherlands have never won a World Cup
- The Orange side are currently on a very impressive 20-match win streak, including their World Cup qualifying games
- For the first time an European country will win a World Cup being hosted outside of Europe
This is a very interesting match-up. Spain have one of the best defenses in the world; Sergio Ramos, Piqué, Puyol and Capdevila form a very consistent and extremely disciplined unite. From there on you have the team with the best ball movement and possession in the world; they rattle opponents with their precise ball movement. Opposing sides often go several minutes without being able to touch the ball. The fact that a big part of this squad comes from Barcelona also helps.
Iniesta and Xavi are world-class creative players. They are both short but very capable of dribbling and maintaining possession; when they decide to go faster, to go vertical, opposing defenses are usually shredded to bits and spaces appear here and there.
Up front is where Spain has some questions coming in to this match. Like previously mentioned, Pedro Rodriguez had a very selfish and totally unprofessional play against Germany, in one of the most important games he will ever play, so do not be surprised if Del Bosque doesn’t start him. And, if he doesn’t play alongside Villa, then who does? Torres has been a total non-factor in this tournament, still recovering from a season filled with injuries. The other option would be Fernando Llorente, a youngster who Del Bosque highly regards.
Three other thoughts about this Spanish side:
- The bulk of this squad comes from their 2008 European Championships triumph. They keep all the intangibles from that squad but with a big difference: they are markedly a more conservative side this time around. They do not risk as much as they did back then. Bear in mind that they are coming into the Final by beating Portugal, Paraguay and Germany all by the same score of 1-0. No, this is not the same team which had Torres running wild. Will it pay off?
- Their goal production so far has been heavily dependent on David Villa’s magic finishing touch. 3 of their 4 goals in the group stage were scored by Villa. Then, Spain’s goals against Paraguay and Portugal were both scored by the new Barcelona player once again. Is this good or bad? Let us just say that it will be very interesting to see how the Dutch will try to contain this magnificent striker.
- If Spain has an incredible defensive unit, let us not forget the man between the posts. Casillas was criticized in the game against Switzerland, as his girlfriend (a popular Spanish sports reporter) supposedly distracted him. After that he has only been beaten once in the tournament. And everyone knows that Casillas is a world-class keeper, both at Real Madrid and for the Spanish side.
What about the Dutch? It has been frequently suggested that their weakest attribute is their coach, Bert van Marwijk. But whatever happens on Sunday, Marwijk has already done a great job. And let us not forget the two men that flank him, two former historic players in Frank De Boer and Philip Cocu. Both of them played for great Dutch squads that had many chances to win World Cups and European Championships; they came close but could never finish the job. These are the guys that are making sure that the Dutch competitive fire is in full effect.
I have already talked about keeper Stekelenburg, a very tall man between the posts and with big shoes to fill (Van der Saar). The Dutch defense is not as impressive as the Spanish counterpart, and that weakness has been somewhat explored in this tournament. But their offense can be considered as arguably better than Spain’s; Robben and Sneijder are the two men to look for, and both have been playing extremely well. Give them space and they will create plays, do not give them space and they will dribble and leave you behind, creating even more space. Match-up nightmares.
Kuyt has been decent but not spectacular and Van Persie is the man who hasn’t been able to find his rhythm yet. Robben and Sneijder need Van Persie to start finishing plays. It is Sunday of never.
If De Boer and Cocu will try to inspire the Dutch and keep them firing all cylinders, there are two men on the field who carry the same flag, having been teammates of those two retired players. They are Van Bronckhorst, the captain, age 35, and physical defensive midfielder Van Bommel, age 33. They were with those great Dutch teams that never did win anything and this is their last chance. You can bet they will leave everything on that field on Sunday. Both are not very technical but they have been hard workers throughout the entire World Cup.
The Orange side likes to have ball possession but Spain likes it even more. The big question is how that will play out. If we assume that Spain, which has better ball movement, will have greater ball possession, then what will the Dutch do? Germany tried to use their deadly counter-attacks, which had rendered them 4 goals both against England and against Argentina, but to no avail. This is the biggest issue, as the Spaniards will undoubtedly have their “tiki-taki” well tuned.
These teams undoubtedly have more in common than factors which set them apart, many analysts even say their are mirror images of each other. The key issue is that Spain’s defense and ball movement is better than the Dutch, while the Dutch flanking offensive unit is seemingly unstoppable.
Maybe both teams should take a look at Inter Milan European Champions League tapes. Because Inter Milan beat Barcelona in the semi-finals (and Barcelona is, as mentioned, the backbone of the Spanish squad) and beat Bayern Munich in the final (were able to contain Robben, who is probably the best Dutch player right now, the man who can decide games; by the way, Van Bommel also plays for that German side).
Both teams have their benches packed with stars, so there is also the possibility of surprise factors coming from there. Spain is good enough to have a player like Fabregas in its bench and the Dutch have guys like Huntelaar and Babel. Such comfort to have so many options.
Let us hope that Sunday’s game is a great one. This World Cup Final is generating unprecedented national pride in both countries, with even the respective monarchies getting vocal about it. One country is going to have its collective heart broken, while the other will win the ultimate prize of the world’s most followed sport. And, individually, whoever scores achieves instant soccer immortality.