Soccer City Stadium, Johannesburg
July 11, 2010, 12:00 AM IST
The grand finale of the South African Odyssey sees a flawless Dutch side take on the Spaniards, who have been rather unspectacular but solid in the campaign. A victory for either side will secure them their first every World Cup trophy, so one can expect a high-voltage encounter, with most of the on-field battles taking place in the midfield. With both teams adopting a similar tactical line-up but different playing strategies, it will be really hard to pick out a winner, unless Paul the octopus’ predictions have already sown the seeds of doubt in the mind of the Oranje players.
The Netherlands have been on an impressive unbeaten streak in both the qualifying games and the World Cup fixtures, and a win will erase the scars of the 1974 and 1978 finals. On the other hand, the reigning European champions Spain have been eking out narrow victories in their games despite the presence of highly talented attacking players, with David Villa bailing them out on more than one occasion; however, they have maintained clean sheets in all the knockout games, a testament to the solid performances of Puyol and Pique in the central defense.
In the 1974 and 1978 editions of the World Cup, Johann Cyruff and his boys dazzled the world with their style of ‘total football’, but they came up short when it mattered the most – the finals. Will it be third time lucky for the men in Oranje? Their record in this World Cup indicates that they are ready to go for the kill.
The Dutch side of today bears no resemblance to the swash-buckling attacking team, which has always been a trademark of Dutch football, till Bert van Marwijk took over the coaching reigns. The coach’s managerial abilities came to the fore on the back of an impressive winning streak of fourteen games till the final. He recruited two defensive midfielders in Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong to stifle the opposition attack and regain possession, putting the attacking burden on the front four in a 4-2-3-1 formation; this strategy has resulted in a lesser goal tally for his side as compared to the ones managed by his predecessors, but he delivered results in the end, which was more than enough for the fans.
What is more admirable about van Marwijk is his handling of the volatile dressing room atmosphere, an everlasting situation plaguing a talented Dutch team. The main reason for the Oranje being underachievers has been a clash of egos between players and a difference of opinion between the coach and some players, which has resulted in personal issues taking precedence over the greater interest of the team. The trend seemed to continue with van Persie and Sneijder apparently not seeing eye-to-eye, and the former openly expressed his displeasure to the coach on being substituted in a game, leading to speculations that the team was still in disarray. But the Oranje presented a united front on the field in subsequent games, and their effective team game has earned them a spot in the finals. The coach had accomplished what Rijkaard and van Basten couldn’t, and a win today will add another feather to his cap.
Road to the final
Netherlands 2-0 Denmark
Netherlands 1-0 Japan
Cameroon 1-2 Netherlands
Round of 16:
Netherlands 2-1 Slovakia
Netherlands 2-1 Brazil
Netherlands 3-2 Uruguay
Wesley Sneijder: The Inter Milan midfielder has been the mainstay of Netherlands’ attacks, racking up five of the twelve goals scored by the Dutch and providing two assists. His ability to score from anywhere and at any time makes him a feared player on the field, and it would be a folly for Spain to give him any amount of space in the midfield.
Arjen Robben: Since returning to the field from injury, the Bayern winger has been largely influential in the knockout games. He dismantled Slovakia with his pace, dribbling and near perfect finish; against Brazil, he frustrated the left flank players with his skills, succeeding in getting Michael Bastos replaced and Melo red-carded; in the semi-final, his powerful header sealed Netherlands’ entry into the finals. Joan Capdevila will have the onerous task of keeping the tricky winger in check.
Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong: The two hard men have their task totally cut out against the in-form duo of Xavi and Iniesta, who have the potential to conjure up assists by the dozen. Any small slip up by them and it could be a mountain to climb for Holland, should Spain take the lead.
Strategy against Spain
Germany made a mistake when they opted to sit back and score on the counter against Spain. They didn’t account for the Spaniards’ pressing tactics and excellent off-the-ball movements, and were run over by the efficient matadors. Netherland’s tactics of deploying two defensive midfielders will work in their favor, as they will look to deny Xavi and Iniesta any space for passing the ball. Gregory van der Wiel will need to cut down his forward runs and mark Villa on the right, while captain van Bronckhorst will keep an eye on Pedro or Torres down the left flank. Heitinga and Mathijsen have been solid so far, and they will need to be on their toes to intercept passes from the midfield.
On the attacking front, Sneijder and Robben could be tightly marked by the Spanish defensive unit, which leaves the consistently hard-working Dirk Kuyt to exploit the spaces left behind by Sergio Ramos’ forward runs. Robin van Persie has been pathetic in this tournament so far, and this could be his final chance at redemption; he is capable of taking on Puyol and co, but must make every chance or half-chance count in this game.
Given Robben’s penchant for theatrics and ability to instigate opposition defenders, it would be a stroke of genius to play him on the right, to keep Ramos completely busy and dry up Spain’s feeders from the right side. Sneijder should be given a free role, which will make it impossible for the defenders to mark him tightly, and the prospect of winning the Golden boot could motivate him to excel against the La Furia Roja.
After reaching the European summit in 2008, the La Furia Roja have scaled a higher peak this time, and they are edging closer to planting the Red and yellow flag atop the international summit. They did not have a smooth climb though, scraping through the group stages and the knock-out rounds till the quarterfinals. However, they delivered a compelling and clinical display against a young but rampant German side in the semi-final, heralding their superior tactics. Their defense has been miserly, conceding only two goals in six games; Sergi Busquets and Xabi Alonso have contributed immensely in the defensive area, aiding the equally effective center back duo of Puyol and Pique.
Unlike the Luis Aragones managed team of Euro 2008, which epitomized the beauty of total attacking football, this team makes use of pressing football to regain possession and feed the ball to the strikers. Torres has been woefully out of form, leaving Villa to shoulder the burden of scoring the goals; and how the new Barcelona signee relished his responsibility! Spain’s victories have been largely due to Villa’s timely goals, ably assisted by the belligerent midfield pair of Xavi and Iniesta. The introduction of Pedro in place of Torres in the last game has effectively taken Spain’s attack a notch up, and the young star will look to make amends for his failure to score Spain’s second goal against Germany in this match, should Del Bosque give him the opportunity.
Although Spain have never reached this stage in the earlier tournaments, their successful experience in the Euro 2008 should give them the impetus to perform to their full potential in the final. The pieces of the jigsaw are finally falling into place for the Spaniards; only Netherlands stands between them and a first World Cup trophy.
Road to the final
Spain 0-1 Switzerland
Spain 2-0 Honduras
Chile 1-2 Spain
Round of 16:
Spain 1-0 Portugal
Paraguay 0-1 Spain
Germany 0-1 Spain
David Villa: El Guaje will be looking to help his side achieve their life-long ambition, and his proven record as a match-winner makes him one of the players the Oranje will have an eye on. Also, another goal scoring spree will bolster his chances of winning the Golden Boot and the Golden Ball.
Xavi and Iniesta: Their consistent brilliance and creativity has already made Barcelona one of the best teams in the world, and they are looking to repeat the same in national colours. With a potent finisher in David Villa on the front line, their assists could make a big difference in the game.
Xabi Alonso and Sergi Busquets: They have been handed the same daunting task as their Dutch defensive midfield counterparts – to contain the rampant duo of Sneijder and Robben. It promises to be an engaging encounter in the middle of the field, with both teams looking to cramp space for each other.
Strategy against Netherlands
The Netherlands team have not been up to the mark in the World Cup, but neither have they been intimidated by any team at any point of time in the tournament; in short, even if they are having an ordinary game, they possess the confidence and solidity in their ranks to make them assured of the result till the final whistle – an ominous sign for Spain, which relies on unsettling their opponents. Moreover, the team spirit fostered by van Marwijk in his side has distinguished them from the earlier Dutch teams, which often self-destructed against the bigger teams.
With Ramos showing a tendency to make forward runs, one of Alonso or Busquets need to cover the right flank to counter the dangerous runs of Kuyt. The other defensive midfielder will have to marshal the movements of either Robben on Sneijder, which requires Puyol, Pique and Capdevila to combine their efforts against van Persie and the remaining attacking midfielder. Also, the defenders tend to be rather slow in passing the ball to the midfield, and the Dutch offensive unit could press them into making mistakes and losing possession of the ball.
However, the Dutch will also have similar problems, with all the four frontline Spaniards in ominous form, should Pedro start in the game. So, it is the mental strength of the sides which will determine the winner of the game. Spain are used to harrowing the opponents into losing the ball, but van Bommel and de Jong are capable of unsettling them in turn, both of them possessing the uncanny ability to get away with hard tackles to hamper the buildup of the opposition attacks. Xabi Alonso will be the key to Spain’s attacks, as his excellent passing range could compensate for Xavi or Iniesta’s inability to service the forwards should the situation materialize.
This will be their first encounter in the World cup – yet another ‘first’ record in the record books. Overall they have met eight times, with Netherlands winning four and Spain three.
Sergi Busquets – Arjen Robben: Not only do the two players have to battle out with each other on the field, they will also be trying to outdo the other with their theatrics and ‘zero-gravity’ skills. There could be a separate betting on who is more likely to con the referee, given Howard Webb’s tendency to dish out cards.
Wesley Sneijder – David Villa: Match winners for their respective teams, contenders for the Golden Ball and Golden Boot, small in stature but big in impact and influence – there is not much difference between these talented footballers. Fittingly, the final which pits them against each other will decide who comes out triumphant in the end.
Robin van Persie – Fernando Torres: Both are front line talismanic strikers for their respective clubs, but they have come up a cropper in this tournament. Torres has been hardly match fit, unable to contribute to Spain’s attack. For van Persie, his Arsenal form deserted him at this stage, and his cold war with some of his team mates didn’t help matters. This is the last opportunity for both of them to reaffirm their coaches’ faith in them, and Torres could try to repeat his Euro final match winning goal here.
1. This will be the first time an European team has clinched the World Cup outside Europe.
2. If Netherlands win this match, they will emulate the Brazil team of 1970, which maintained an unbeaten run in the qualifying games and the World Cup.
3. If Netherlands or Spain win this game, this will be their first ever World Cup.
4. If Spain win the game, they will become the second defending European champion after West Germany in 1972 and 1974 to claim the coveted trophy.
5. If Spain defeat Netherlands, New Zealand will be the only team to remain unbeaten in the tournament!