Sunday, July 11, 2:30 p.m. ET – Netherlands vs. Spain at Soccer City Stadium
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No matter what happens Sunday in Johannesburg, a brand-new World Cup champion will be crowned in what is a second straight all-European championship final. Only seven teams have ever won the World Cup since its beginnings in 1930, but in just a few days it’ll be eight.
In fact, Spain has never been in a World Cup final and is attempting to become one of the few reigning European champions to follow up with a world championship. Holland, on the other hand, is well-known for disappointment at the finals, having lost twice to host nations, in 1974 in West Germany and then in 1978 at Argentina. Both teams are considered the best to never have won a Cup. One will snap that ugly streak.
This could be a tense, tactical final between two teams that haven’t seemed to quite catch fire, but have certainly gotten the job done. Both made the best of what now look like relatively easy paths into the finale. Slovakia and Paraguay are hardly world-beaters but both teams did take major scalps en route, as the Dutch toppled Brazil and Spain broke down a very impressive German side.
Both teams are well-feted for their attack, which is somewhat ironic considering that the Spanish have only scored seven goals total in this Cup while the Dutch have ground out their wins using a smothering midfield to spring their attacking trident. David Villa has carried Spain while the surprising Dirk Kuyt has helped make the difference for the Oranje.
The Netherlands is the only team at the Cup to have won every single one of its games, and it must hope that streak continues against a Spanish team that wins games without looking particularly impressive.
Holland is a team that has played smart, but sometimes unattractive football, and while there’s no questioning the caliber of their talent, it could be argued that this side has been less than the sum of its parts. But there’s no question that manager Bert van Marwijk deserves all sorts of praise. His game plans have been masterful, and his management of his men is nothing short of superhuman considering the Dutch propensity for combustion. Holland was able to ease Arjen Robben into the tournament, giving the winger time to recover from injury by handling Denmark and Japan with aplomb, then giving the Bayern Munich star a testing 18-minute run-about in the meaningless group game against Cameroon. Van Marwijk has also kept Wesley Sneijder and Robin van Persie playing together, despite their enormous egos and tendency to snipe at one another.
Holland wants to get Robben running at you right to left, whereupon he can uncork the kind of blinder that sunk Manchester United’s Champions League dreams. But paying too much attention to him — as Uruguay did in its semifinal meeting — has proved to give Kuyt a lot of freedom to run and create. No, the Liverpool man isn’t the most elegant, but he’s shown he can really play in this Cup. And while Van Persie really hasn’t shown us the kind of class he can display, he’s a harassing, superior striker who is always one touch away from killing you.
Spain comes in with a great deal of experience, and a demonstrated ability to control the flow and the pace of the game. Yes, they can bore you to tears with their pass-first, shoot-later style, but they also can spring out at you in an instant, sending Villa or Torres hurtling toward the net and forcing your defenders to commit. They can absorb with the best of them, and given the great work Joan Capdevila has given them this Cup, it’s safe to say they are getting help from all over the field.
Against Germany, Spain clogged up the main artery, then dictated the tempo with the careful, short-passing game that drives opponents to distraction. They keep opponents from settling in the center of the field while they look to go wide, and cut you apart with their triangle system of passing. You have to pick and choose with Spain: Xavi, Xabi and Andres Iniesta form a deadly spine and if you shut down one or two of them, you leave opportunities open for men like Villa and Sergio Ramos to get into the game. If you fail to handle them, however, you open yourself up to being passed to death.
One thing Spain isn’t getting enough credit for is the coaching of Vincente del Bosque. Against the Germans, the coach had his team douse the midfield. Against Portugal, Spain shut down its key threats and forced them to absorb. Against Chile, it attacked through the center in a must-win game. Del Bosque will have a plan for the Dutch, too.
Choosing a winner here is tough. Spain probably has the edge in personnel and experience; Holland will have overwhelming home support from a nation they helped found some 400 years ago and some world-class talent of its own. The only weak links might be in goal. Iker Casillas has looked shaky; this is far and away the biggest game Maarten Stekelenburg has ever been in, and he made a howler against Diego Forlan Tuesday.
My heart says Holland … but my head says Spain.
Jamie Trecker is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com.