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The Cup Running Over


July 10, 2010 7:02 AM

Spain-Netherlands Final Preview: The Octopus Says Spain and So Do We

In a Nutshell: The final between the two biggest also-rans in world soccer. For the first time since 1958, a team that's never won the Cup before will win it while not playing at home. And a European team will win it on non-European soil for the first time. This is also the first final not to feature either Germany (as West Germany), Italy, Brazil, or Argentina.

Previous History:
In their history, they've only played nine times with each side winning four, but Spain hasn't won since 1983. Going back a few centuries, they were once bitter rivals, so much so that the Dutch national anthem features an attack on Spain, referring to William of Orange and his troubles with Iberia.

What We Learned Last Game: The Spanish continue to dominate 1-0 games, daring the other side to take away possession. The Dutch won a sloppy 3-2 game over Uruguay, continuing a march to the finals in which the team has looked largely unimpressive but wins. Very un-Dutch.


NETHERLANDS


Record and Goals: 6-0, 12 goals scored, five allowed.

The Good News: A utilitarian team -- backed by the strongest defensive midfielders in the tournament so far, Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel. Midfielder Wesley Sneijder has been all-tournament. The strikers are supposed to be outstanding and the keeper Maarten Steklenburg has been better than many Dutch had anticipated.

The Bad News: Those vaunted strikers have been out to lunch most of the tournament -- especially Robin Van Persie. The suspicion is that the defense behind those outstanding defensive midfielders is weak. The offense has frequently been unimpressive -- hold the ball in your own end, pass to Arjen Robben, and hope he does something. Paul the octopus picks Spain.

Pedigree:
Known as the greatest team never to win a Cup -- which cuts both ways obviously. This is the Netherlands' third final but the other two were in the 1970's.

Player to Watch: 
We'll give you two -- van Bommel and de Jong. Unless they can find a way to disrupt Spanish possession, Holland is probably doomed. And, on this team, they may be called upon to score too.

Telling Stat:
According to OPTA stats, the Dutch have played a higher proportion of passes in their own half than any other team.

Bet You Didn't Know That:
van Bommel is the son-in-law of Dutch manager Bert van Marjwick.

To Win:
The feeling here is that the Dutch must score twice to win. That calls for some more wonder goals like Giovanni van Bronkhorst's super strike from last time and some compelling and accurate counter-attacks. Steklenburg must not get the jitters too. And the defense needs to rise to the occasion, denying David Villa the ball and disrupting Xavi. And  . . . .




xavi-spain.jpg
As Xavi goes, so goes Spain. (Courtesy sportstwo.com)




SPAIN



Record and Goals: 5-1, seven goals scored, two allowed.

The Good News: Who knew the Spanish would end up the defensive power of the tournament? It's done it by essentially denying the other team the ball, while featuring what the Castrol index indicates is  the best four defenders in the tournament -- Carlos Puyol, Joan Capdevilla, Sergio Ramos, and Gerard Pique. David Villa might well be the striker of the tournament too; he's been involved in every Spanish goal but the last one. And the midfield? Maybe it hasn't played up to its capabilities so far but when you've got Andres Iniesta, Xavi, and the others, you're loaded.

The Bad News:
We all know by now that this team can struggle to score, even while retaining possession. The Swiss actually shut them out and the Spanish have won the last three games 1-0 by scoring late in the second half each time. The other striker position has been a problem, what with the lackluster performances by Fernando Torres.

Pedigree:
This is as far as Spain has ever gotten at the World Cup. It is also the defending European champion.

Player to Watch: Xavi. Yes, this is a finely-tuned, attacking team but he pulls the strings, touching the ball an average of every 46 seconds. He had 105 successful passes against Germany. If he's off, the whole team is too.   

Telling Stat:
According to OPTA stats, Spain has averaged 617 passes per game -- the second-highest ever at a Cup. (Colombia in '94 is first.)

Bet You Didn't Know That: If Spain wins, it will be the first team to win the Cup while losing its opening match.

To Win:
Shut down Sneijder and Robben and the Dutch don't know what to do. Don't concede free kicks in the zone and watch the counter. Though it's a bit of a cliche, don't let the Dutch score first. If they do, the Spanish will become a different team having to play from behind rather than ahead.



Prediction:
Not to go out on a limb or anything, but Spain should win this game, in a style similar to the German game, except more one-sided. Playing at altitude is much more conducive to the Spanish style; this will also be its fourth game in the heights while only Holland's second.  Holland's best chance is to score first, which would cause the Spanish to open up, allow more counters, and distribute possession more evenly. But if this doesn't happen, Spain is going to play this game exactly as it played the last three. If we have to give it a score, we say 2-0 as the Dutch continue to be the best team never to win a Cup. Except this time, they're not the best team.


If It Goes to Penalties: Historically the Dutch are almost England's equal at blowing penalties and Steklenburg isn't as good as Spain's keeper Iker Casillas. So, if form holds and it goes this far, it's Spain's game. 

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