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World Cup Final Preview: Will Spain Or The Netherlands Lift Its First Trophy?

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↵It is a fine storyline: Whichever team, Spain or the Netherlands, emerges victorious on Sunday, will join one of the most selective fraternities in sports, becoming just the eighth nation to claim a World Cup. ↵

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↵But here's another one: The Netherlands, to finally break through and win a World Cup after a quarter-century of earning a following as the world's second-favorite team, must play a team as offensively gifted and creative as their own old "total football" squads were. (Though, to be fair, in a slightly different mold.) To become what they want to be, the Dutch must vanquish their beautiful shadow. That's formidable. ↵

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↵Of course, that makes the Spaniards the rooting interest for the aesthete. It would be nice to see Spain confirm its position as the world's best team—one many have thought it held since its Euro win in 2008—with one last explosion of offense, but its success in this tournament has come not from flashy finishing, but rather persistent possession. ↵

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↵Either way, it's a good story. But which one is getting its fitting final chapter? Time for a breakdown. ↵

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↵Goalkeeper. Unquestionably, Spain has the advantage. Iker Casillas is arguably the world's best keeper, and has certainly shown that form this tournament, with four clean sheets, no goals allowed after the group stage, and a save of a penalty shot against Paraguay. ↵

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↵Maarten Stekelenburg, though, had maybe the save of the World Cup, a brilliant flying stop of a perfectly placed shot by Kaka that saved the Dutch from a two-goal deficit against Brazil. He's been shakier since, making a couple of mistakes that lead to goals against Uruguay, but he's capable of doing the wondrous at the right moment, and his towering frame makes him a hard man to beat. ↵

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↵Defense. This was Spain's biggest question mark entering the tournament. Sergio Ramos, in particular, was assumed to be a liability after being all but lit ablaze by the United States at last year's Confederations Cup. But Spain's done a superb job in this tournament, allowing just two goals to lead all teams and keeping Germany, the highest-scoring team in the field, off the board. ↵

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↵The Dutch have been less stingy, giving up five goals, all in their last four games. And they will have their hands full with David Villa and Fernando Torres, if he plays. They've done a marvelous job, though, of limiting the mighty Brazilians and the sensational Diego Forlan of Uruguay. Points for difficulty don't count, but it should be noted that the Dutch defense has done enough to make its team the only one with a slate full of Ws. ↵

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↵Midfield. This is perhaps the one thing Spain does better than anyone else in the world, and this has been the best unit in South Africa. Between Xavi, Xabi Alonso, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets, the Spanish are always moving, always possessing and always searching for opportunities to create shots. And, by the way, Spain leads the tournament in shots, with an astounding 105. ↵

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↵The Dutch may not have the better midfield, but they do have the more dangerous midfielders when it comes to goal-scoring. Wesley Sneijder is tied for the tournament lead with five goals, Arjen Robben has two, Giovanni van Bronckhorst scored a wondergoal in the semifinal, and Robin van Persie has one. There's little chance the Dutch will have more possession than the Spanish sprites, but if the midfield converts limited possession into a goal or two, it might not matter. ↵

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↵Forwards. Villa alone is the reason Spain has an edge here. He's been magical, scoring on a long shot over an off-line keeper, a marvelous winding run with a sliding finish, a right-footed rebound of his lefty shot, and twice more to tie for the World Cup lead in goals. And he's probably not as good as a healthy Torres! But Torres is far from healthy, was left off Vicente del Bosque's starting lineup for the semifinal, and hasn't been anywhere near his usual form. If Spain is to win its first World Cup, it will likely require a Villa goal. ↵

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↵The Dutch have a less impressive roster of strikers—Dirk Kuyt, Robin Van Persie and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar have combined for just three goals—but their midfield has made up for it. Sneijder will cheat forward and has provided the punch the Netherlands has needed, and his overzealous play could make or break the final; if he scores, wonderful, but giving the Spanish armada of fleet midfielders a chance to operate with fewer defenders could prove fatal. ↵

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↵I thought before the semifinals that the winner of Germany-Spain would be the favorite in the final, and I stand by that. But the Netherlands' score record is bereft of the goose eggs that dot the Spanish one, and I certainly don't envision the Dutch failing to score against Spain's sometimes indifferent defense after lighting into rugged Brazil and Uruguay. 2-1, Spain, in extra time seems right. ↵

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This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.