By Jason Le Miere
Spain have deservedly reached their first World Cup final and are justifiably favorites; they have played the best soccer at international level in the past four years, and along with Brazil they have also achieved the best results. However, that does not mean a victory over the Netherlands on Sunday is a foregone conclusion.
There have been enough examples, most notably and most relevantly Inter Milan overcoming Barcelona – from which seven of the likely Spanish starting 11 are drawn – in the Champions League semi-final, that a team with players of inferior quality maximizing their effectiveness can come out on top.
Spain, though, are a side playing irresistible soccer right now. It is difficult to imagine that this is the same nation that were famed for their ability to fail live up to expectations at big tournaments. While it is true to say that Spain have never had a side as breathtakingly good as this one, it is admirable how mentally strong the Spanish have been in this tournament.
Already arriving in South Africa with the tag of favorites hanging around their necks, Spain, let’s not forget, lost their opening game to an unheralded Switzerland. That meant that from there on out Spain were, essentially, playing knockout football. Yet they have not wilted under such extreme pressure and have never wavered in their commitment to the patient passing game that had taken them so far.
While they may not have been at their best throughout, they have gradually improved with every match, reaching new levels of excellence in their semi-final victory over Germany, where they passed the opposition into bewilderment. The players seem convinced of their ability to overcome any opposition and there is no reason to believe that they will wilt with the glory in sight now
Spain will play their own game on Sunday, with absolute belief that this will bring them the trophy that the country so yearns for. Much more so than their opponents on Sunday, Spain embodies the idea of total football that the 1970’s Dutch sides made famous. Their full backs are encouraged to form part of the attack whenever their side has possession; Sergio Ramos, in particular, taking up positions more akin to a wing back, or even a winger, than a full back. Xabi Alonso, although a holding midfielder by default, is an exceptional passer of the ball and plays an important role in starting Spanish attacks and also breaks forward and adds a goal threat with his adept long-range shooting.
The Netherlands on the other hand, in a juxtaposition of the country’s soccer heritage, are much more of a pragmatic side under coach Bert van Marwijk and they will adapt their game to best disturb the Spanish from playing.
And the Oranje have the players who could potentially achieve that. Central to this plan will be the two defensive midfield enforcers of Nigel De Jong and Mark Van Bommel. Expect Van Bommel, who has garnered much criticism for his aggressive tackling, to be in and around Xavi as much as possible, trying to prevent him, by both legal and illegal means, from dictating the tempo of the match.
The Netherlands are a team very much split according to specific defensive and offensive roles. They have a defensive six, with a back four, including two full backs with a strong emphasis to defend, supplemented by the two holding midfielders. Their attacking four retains the ability to cause any side problems, led by the creative force of Wesley Sneijder supplying the dangerous wide-man Arjen Robben.
With the Dutch likely to be relying on the counter attack, Robben’s advanced wide position could pose a significant problem for Spain. Although left back Juan Capdevila does not bomb on quite as much as Ramos, he still leaves his defensive slot vacant at times, something which Robben could exploit. The Bayern Munich man will also fancy his chances against Capdevila, perhaps the weak link of the Spanish side, in a one-on-one duel. Also, don’t be surprised if Van Marwijk switches Robben over to the left flank to see if he can exploit Ramos’ marauding runs, or even to simply force the Spanish right back to curtail his attacking instincts and thereby deprive Spain of a valuable offensive tool. However, in order for any of this to even prove relevant, the Netherlands need to have the ball, something which against Spain, as the Germans will attest to, is easier said than done.
In order to stop Spain from controlling the game, a bold strategy that the Dutch could try to utilize is to press high up the pitch, which there is some evidence to suggest could be effective. For 30 minutes Chile were the better side against Spain, largely by doing exactly that. They harried the Spanish all over the pitch and it was only after they had a man sent off that Spain began to assume some control. Puyol and Pique at the back, and to some degree Busquets in the holding midfield role, do not possess the same level of ability on the ball as the rest of the Spanish side and the Netherlands could exploit this by preventing them from laying off simple passes and thus winning the ball in advanced areas where they have the ability to quickly exploit them.
At the other end, though, Spain have more than enough with which to concern the Netherlands. The Dutch defense has generally looked good at this tournament, but there are definite deficiencies there, and you feel it is only a matter of time before they are laid bare. If coach Vicente del Bosque keeps with the same lineup as in the semi final, which he should, Pedro could cause a lot of problems for the slowing 35-year-old left back Giovanni van Bronckhorst. And Spain will also be very happy with striker David Villa matching up against the two Dutch center halves, who, at best, could be described as solid.
The first goal could be crucial. If Spain get it then the Dutch face a mammoth task, as Spain will just pass the ball ‘til their heart’s content safe in the knowledge that this is the ultimate form of defense. One would not bet against Spain claiming victory even if they fall behind, however. This is a side that looks almost destined to win their first World Cup, and what’s more the players look like they believe it too.
By Jason Le Miere