The drama that's captivated the sporting world for a month reaches its climax on Sunday, but for Spain, who will face the Netherlands in Johannesburg for the 2010 World Cup, the journey has lasted over three years. That's how long the Spaniards have been the world's best, and while that's a status that wasn't affirmed until two summers past, the expectations that they would end Spain's World Cup void were cast upon them the second they were crowned Europe's champions.
Like Spain, the Netherlands have never won a World Cup--though they've been on the cusp, having reached the 1974 and 1978 finals. Unlike Spain, the Dutch don't carry two years' worth of expectations into Sunday's game. On the contrary, after the Dutch dominated group stage at Euro 2008 only to flame-out in the knockout round, there was a decided same ol' Dutch feel to it all. Those were the mixed expectations the Netherlands carried into South Africa, but thanks to an unanticipated change of style, those expectations quickly became inapplicable.
This year's Dutch team is consistent, stable, if stoic (relative to the days of Total Football), yet it's a style that's brought the Netherlands back to the finals, where this year's team will have a chance to succeed where their more romanticized predecessors failed.
It's difficult to imagine a better final.
Spain versus the Netherlands, Johannesburg (Soccer City), 2:30 p.m. Eastern, ABC
Where They Stand: The Netherlands come into Sunday’s match perfect, each of their last five wins by one goal, and although they are being criticized for their conservative play, the Dutch are averaging two goals per match, having scored multiple goals in each of their knockout phase games. Their defending, however, has not been as stellar, allowing five goals in six matches.
While that total’s not bad, consider the Netherlands’ counterparts: Spain. The Spanish have allowed only two goals in six matches and carry a scoreless streak of 313 minutes into the final. Spain, however, have shared the Netherlands’ habit of one goal wins, stringing together four in a row, the last three all 1-0 results where Spain was never ahead before the 63rd minute.
Both teams are expect the be at full health and strength for the final, with the Netherlands seeing the return to the lineup of Nigel de Jong and Gregory van der Weil, both of whom were suspended for the semifinal against Uruguay.
Player(s) To Watch, Netherlands: In the formation the Dutch are employing, the most important player is always the advanced midfielder: Wesley Sneijder. The 26-year-old attacker is having his second successive, eye-opening, major tournament. Sneijder’s five goals (tied for tournament lead) and his team’s performance make him one of the leading contenders for the Golden Ball.
Those accolades aside, the Netherlands’ best player is right wing Arjen Robben. He is the one Dutch player that can score when nothing else his working, his left foot the singularly most dangerous weapon in world football. As evidenced by his 18th minute goal against Slovakia in the Round of 16, sometimes all the Dutch need to generate goals is a 60 yard punt to Robben. His ability to turn the match at any moment enables coach Bert van Marwijk to play as conservatively as he has been.
Other players of note for Holland: goalkeeper Maarten Stenkelenburg, central defender John Heitinga and left back Giovanni van Bronckhorst must be more stalwart against Spain’s attack than they’ve shown throughout the knockout stage; the key to protecting them may be defensive midfielders Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel, the backbone to the team.
Player(s) To Watch, Spain: What Robben is to the Dutch, forward David Villa is to the Spanish, but whereas the Netherlands has advanced to the final without dominant play from Robben (who has supplied only two of their twelve goals), the Spanish are hapless without Villa. Of Spain’s seven goals in the tournament, Villa has scored five and assisted on one (he seventh was off a corner kick). Every open play goal Spain’s recorded in the tournament has had Villa at its center.
But if Villa is Spain’s most dangerous player, Xavi Hernandez is their most important. In some ways, he is to Spain and Barcelona’s variety of Total Football what Johan Cruyff was to the Clockwork Orange’s: the player around whom everything is build and all the success depends. Hernandez leads the tournament in completed passes (still ahead of Bastian Schweinsteiger despite the German having now played an extra match), and given the margin by which Spain has been winning their matches, it’s confoudning to think of where La Roja would be were Xavi not the tournament’s most prolific distributor. Over the last two years, both Spain and Barcelona have built their teams around him, with both Spain and Barcelona finding unprecedented success.
Other players of note for Spain: Deep-sitting midfielders Xabi Alonso and, particularly, Sergio Busquets can stifle the Dutch if they control Sneijder; right back Sergio Ramos has been key to providing Spain with width on the right side, but on Sunday will be marked by notoriously hard-worker Dirk Kuyt; goalkeeper Iker Casillas will have the pleasure of dealing with Robben-plus-Jabulani should Joan Capdevila give the Dutch winger the same room he afforded Piotr Trochowski in the first half of Spain’s semifinal.
Prediction: While it's true the Dutch are averaging two goals per match, that's a statistic that's been built on opportunism more than skillful play. Between the own goal(s), a goal off a goalkeeper's arms, a offside goal allowed and goals scored against sides chasing late, the Dutch have created very few goals of their own accord. Now, they face a team that's only allowing a goal everything three matches, one which, as exhibited against Portugal and Paraguay, have found ways to scored against the most ardent defenses. Having shown against Germany that they are capable of adapting to go around a pair of good central midfielders (albeit, a pair less defensively stalwart than the Dutch's), Spain should be able to avoid the Netherlands' strength.
Perhaps the most impressive part of the Spain's performance against Germany was their ability to raise their game with the quality of opposition. All the adoration adorned upon the Spanish since their semifinal has made many overlook how well Germany was playing coming into that match (and how much Spain struggled against Paraguay). Yet, Spain controlled what had been the best team in the tournament.
While the Dutch's talent combined with the lessons the Germans had to learn (the hard way) could see the Netherlands to their first World Cup, Spain have to be considered strong favorites, and if they show the same determination they exhibited at the onset of their semifinal, the Spanish could give us a Spain 2, Netherlands 0 final.