If we are being brutally honest, I don’t think anybody would have predicted a World Cup final between Holland and Spain. Many people felt that the Spanish would qualify for the final before the tournament began, while Holland were ranked alongside Germany and Italy as a country who had a decent pedigree, but perhaps wasn’t quite good enough to go all the way.
Certainly when the tournament started there was little to suggest either would make the final. Holland, though unbeaten, were more workmanlike than spectacular in their progress through the group, only coming to life with the superb and fully deserved quarter final victory over Brazil. This was followed by a 3-2 victory over Uruguay in the semis, a result that was perhaps a tad more comprehensive than the score suggests.
Spain on the other hand began remarkably poorly and were defeated by the Swiss in their opening game. They recovered well to defeat Honduras and Chile in their next games, thanks mainly to the brilliance of David Villa and it would be the Barcelona man whose goals took them past Portugal and Paraguay into the semi finals. In Durban, Carlos Puyol’s towering header gave the Spanish a narrow win over Germany to book their place in the final on Sunday night.
Both teams have plenty to offer the game on Sunday. Arguably the two most impressive players in the entire tournament, Holland’s Wesley Sneijder and Spain’s David Villa, will no doubt be the focal point for their team once again and it is fitting that the two best players in the tournament should face off in the final.
Oddly, there is no history between the two teams in major finals events. The 1920 Olympic final being their only meeting (Spain won 3-1). They played each other twice in the 1984 European Championship qualifiers, Spain winning 1-0 in Sevilla and Holland 2-1 in Rotterdam and in two friendly matches since, Holland have had the upper hand, defeating Spain 2-1 in Sevilla in 2000 and again 1-0 in Rotterdam in 2002 and from that 2002 game, only Carlos Puyol of Spain is likely to feature in the final.
Bookmakers make Spain the 11/10 favourites with Holland a more outside bet at 11/4 and a draw (obviously not withstanding penalties) a 9/4 shot (all odds with Bet365).
It is hard to argue with those odds. Spain, after a slow start, were imperious in their semi final with Germany. While they were a tad below par in the first half, they were outstanding in the second and their ball retention is second to none. Germany, starved of the ball, were reduced to long ball tactics during the second half, but still failed to create a meaningful chance against a well marshalled Spanish defence. Despite their dominance however, Spain struggled to create much against the German defence and this may well give Holland a realistic chance.
Certainly the Dutch are not to be underestimated. The Spanish defence, though strong against Germany, has hardly been impervious throughout the tournament thus far and it is hard to see the likes of Robben, Van Persie and Sneijder not creating something against the Spaniards. In contrast, the Dutch defence has looked very strong throughout the tournament and they are certainly the form team at the finals, having won all of their six games so far without requiring extra time in any.
For me, the game will be won and lost not by the likes of David Villa or Wesley Sneijder, but perhaps by the contribution of other players. For Holland to win they are going to have to break up Spain’s magnificent passing rhythm, which means the Dutch defensive players like Nigel De Jong and John Heitinga will have to impose themselves on Spain’s midfield trio of Alonso, Xavi and Iniesta. If they can do that, Holland have a great chance.
Spain will play like Spain have done for many years, a slick passing game based on control of the ball, clever movement and intricate passing to wear down a defence, before going for the kill. It is hard to imagine coach Del Bosque changing his victorious semi final line up for the final, which means Fernando Torres may have to be content with a place on the bench. Spanish success however will ultimately lie in creating enough chances for the likes of David Villa and Pedro to convert, against a mean Dutch defence.
So who is going to win? Throughout the tournament I’ve tried to champion the underdog whenever possible but for the final, I can’t disagree with the bookies here. As good as the Dutch have been, and worthy winners they would be, I think Spain just have the edge in terms of keeping the ball. It will be a tight final and it could be a great one if we are blessed with an early goal (particularly if Holland score it), but if I was going to put my money where my mouth is, I’d go for Spain. Just..