FOX Soccer Exclusive
Wait for World Cup glory almost over for Spain and Netherlands
“If not now, when?”
As scores of Dutch fans boarded flights for South Africa more than a month ago, the above phrase could be seen adorning many of their outfits. It was a fair question for a Dutch team that had perennial underachieved and once again entered a World Cup with a loaded team.
If not now, when?
The same question could be asked of Spain, which joins the Dutch in that “Best team never to have won a World Cup” category. The Spanish entered the tournament with what was widely regarded as the most talented roster in the field, but there was still a sense that Spain would fall short yet again.
One of these teams will finally exorcise those demons. One will lift the World Cup trophy for the first time and join the seven other nations to win a world championship.
So what will it take for the Dutch and the Spanish to prevail on Sunday? For the Dutch, it will take being able to slow down Spain’s controlled passing attack. For Spain, it will take dominating possession and keeping Dutch stars Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder under wraps.
No, winning a first World Cup title won’t be easy for either side.
In terms of momentum, Spain has the slight edge after masterfully halting Germany in the semifinals by putting on a possession clinic. For the third straight match, Spain’s defense posted a shutout with the help of its dominating midfield keeping the ball away from the opposition.
The Dutch won’t be as easy to dominate. Not with a central midfield trio that is tougher than any Spain has faced. With Sneijder in a playmaking role, and Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong among the best destroyers in the game, Spanish maestro Xavi and fellow creator Andres Iniesta will have a tougher time keeping possession than in previous games.
As vital as Xavi and Iniesta are to what Spain do, underrated Sergio Busquets could wind up being even more important as he looks to contain Sneijder. It was Sneijder who got the better of Busquets when the two squared off in the UEFA Champions League semifinals. Sneijder scored in the first leg to help Inter post a vital 3-1 victory against Busquets and most of the same midfield he will face on Sunday (though Busquets should get help from Xabi Alonso in slowing down Sneijder).
Another important figure for Spain could be English referee Howard Webb, who is known for calling games tightly. Webb’s quick whistle could force the physical tandem of van Bommel and de Jong to temper their penchant for frequent fouling. That could hamper their efforts to contain Xavi and Iniesta.
If Xavi and Iniesta can get the better of van Bommel and de Jong, Spanish striker David Villa could have a field day against the Dutch center back tandem of Johnny Heitinga and Joris Mathijsen. Heitinga has the athleticism to deal with Villa, but Mathijsen could be exposed if the Spanish playmakers have room to operate.
For the Netherlands, the key will be putting pressure on Spain’s back four as often as possible. That means hitting the counterattack quickly when the Dutch does score possession. Arjen Robben, Dirk Kuyt and striker Robin van Persie will be key to this as they attempt to stretch the Spanish midfield and challenge Spanish fullbacks Sergio Ramos and Joan Capdevila.
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What Robben does, and where he lines up, could be key to the match. He has been deployed on the right flank, where he can run at defenders and cut inside onto his favored right foot, but Dutch manager Bert van Marwijk could be tempted to shift Robben to the left wing in order keep Ramos from surging forward, and potentially to force speedy Pedro Rodriguez to contribute defensively.
That’s another key question mark heading into the match. Will Spanish head coach Vicente Del Bosque keep Fernando Torres on the bench again and go with Pedro? The move seemed to pay off against Germany by giving the Spanish a more natural flank player to slot on the left and allowing Villa to stay up top. By including Torres, whose form has been lackluster during the World Cup, Del Bosque could wind up shifting Villa into a more left-sided role. That role didn’t work too badly for Villa against Honduras and Chile, but the question remains whether Torres is worth having in the starting lineup.
Whoever starts for Spain, the match will be a tightly-contested battle that could turn on a single play. While the Dutch has its share of difference makers, Spain will be considered the favorite based on the form it has shown in the knockout rounds. The reality is there isn’t much separating these two strong and confident teams. At least not until Sunday night, when the teams will then be separated by one trophy. A trophy that will let their fans know that they don’t have to wait any longer to enjoy a world championship.