A new nation will have it’s name engraved on the World Cup trophy come Sunday evening as the two richest footballing academies in the world clash in the final at Johannesburg’s Soccer City stadium.
Where as the Dutch will be hoping it’s a case of ‘third time lucky’ after they lost in the finals to the hosts in 1974 and 78’, this will be new territory for Spain, who interestingly have never even made it to the semi-finals pre-2010.
Spain will be trying to emulate the likes of France, Germany and Brazil, who were champions of the world and their own continent (by that I mean winners of the Euro and Copa Ameria) at the same time. As European champions, one expects Spain to be slight favourites, but Netherlands are unbeaten under Bert van Marwijk and like they say, ‘If you can beat Brazil, you can beat anyone’.
Made in Barca?
7 of the 10 outfield players on the pitch against Germany play for Barca – Xavi, Iniesta, Pique, Puyol, Pedro, Villa and Busquets. Del Bosque has used the Barcelona formula and with it, he brings along it’s strengths and weaknesses.
Germany’s coach Loew said after the match that Xavi is the centre of Spain’s perfect spine. How many times have we heard the exact same line from coaches in La Liga after their team was defeated ripped apart by Barca?
Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets – the trio reprise their roles from their club and dictate the tempo of the game from the midfield. Busquets is technically the least superior and his job is simple – win the ball back and pass it to his closest team-mate and he has performed his job admirably throughout the tournament. Rarely ever taking more than two touches, he lubricates the midfield and constantly keeps it ticking – he is a vital cog in Spain’s midfield.
Xavi is the pivot – dictates play from the centre and uses his third-eye to find team-mates with relative ease. Iniesta is the intelligent one – wriggling his way past multiple opponents, switching flanks, pulling markers out of position, creating space and of course, threading in the killer ball.
Xabi Alonso plays as a deep-lying playmaker and is always on the wavelength of his Barca team-mates – thus working in perfect tandem with his Spanish compatriots.
It’s thus not hard to see why Spain have modelled their team on Barca’s philosophy – ‘As long as the ball is at our legs, the match is in our hands’.
But like mentioned before, that’s exactly where Spain can be beaten. While people are taking about how their loss to the Swiss was a mere aberration, it’s anything but that. Spain controlled the match, dominated possession – then conceded a silly goal on the counter – went back to controlling the match and eventually lost. A goal up, or one down, Spain will stick to their style. After their loss to the Swiss, Torres said that there will be no knee-jerk reaction and immediate changes and that if Spain were to lose, they will go down adhering to the very same principles.
Ramos and Capdevila – A tale of two full-backs
Some might even cringe at me calling Ramos a full-back – A “right winger who defends” would probably be a more accurate description.
Capdevila does it the simple way – stays back and defends. Ramos , who played for the Spanish U-17 and U-21 teams as a centre- forward(now that explains a lot) is usually at hugging distance from the opponent’s keeper. Backheels, flicks, stepovers – and with a colourful wristband, this guy opts for the spectacular, even trying his luck at goal with a couple of shots every now and then.
While most people consider Capdevila, who plays for unfancied Villareal, as the weaker of two, a closer look reveals that it’s Ramos who is actually the weak link and pays the price for..emm not tracking back(are we actually accusing a defender of not tracking back? :O ). He actually needs reminding every now and then that he’s also supposed to defend. Ramos was widely criticized for Spain’s 2-0 loss to USA in the Confederations cup and Henry had a field day against him in Madrid’s 6-2 loss to Barca, so his defensive fragility has been exposed.
And that’s where two of the most intriguing battles lie – Capdevila against the Orange flash Robben and Ramos against Kuyt. Robben will be upto his usual trickery and Capdevila will have his task cut out against the fella. He will have to stay back and NOT do a ‘Michel Bastos’ for Spain.
Ramos, on the other hand, will come up against Van Bronckhorst and Kuyt, who has taken care of his defensive duties excellently. Against Brazil, Kuyt combined superbly with Van Bronckhorst to nullify the threat of Maicon and Alves.
Madrid and Barca unite at the back
In Puyol and Casillas, Spain have two pillars of strength. And Pique with his tucked in shirt, oozes calm and confidence as he adventures up front with the ball.
Expect Casillas to give nothing away and by that, i really mean nothing. He will be the toughest pair of hands that Holland have come up against yet (No Brazil, Cesar literally gifted them a goal with his handling). Puyol, who really turns it on in the big games, will leave strands of his hair all over the pitch – he will get real rough and Van Persie will come to know what he “missed out” when he was injured for Arsenal’s loss to Barca. Puyol and Pique are both a major threat from set-pieces too. Germany will tell you all about that.
Villa & co.
Goal-machine Villa combined well with Pedro last time around and Del Bosque will probably stick by Pedro, despite his..ummm ‘misunderstanding’ with Torres (Pedro later apologized, but hold on –and I quote “It was a clear chance in which I just trusted in myself a little too much. I made a bad decision to cut back when I should have shot on goal.” DUDE, ummm, have you heard of Torres? Apparently you and him play for the same team!). Villa will want to seal a successful tournament with a goal in the finals and Pedro’s movement, combined with Iniesta being a literal pain in the a#% for opposing defences suggests Villa might have a goal in him for this game.
What to expect from Spain
Some 5910,54,89,000 passes sprayed all over the pitch?
On a more serious note, Spain will dominate possession (as they always do). What’s important is how they make their possession count. Yes, they passed Germany out of the game, but likewise, they got Tobler-owned by the Swiss. For all their passing and possession, their goal against Germany came from a corner. Xavi and Iniesta will have to create more opportunities for Villa up front and Netherlands have it in them to score goals against the run of play (just ask Brazil), so Spain better not retreat into their cozy cocoon of passing the ball around. No, Spain are not being asked to abandon their philosophy – merely show a little more urgency from the very first whistle itself.
How they play
Short pass football with precise shots on goal from midfield and runs interchanging positinos while in attack. Van Bommel and De Jong are of prime importance to their game, winning the ball and distributing it (along with Sneijder) besides providing cover for their defence. Sneijder has been their main creative outlet. They keep possession and switch flanks by passing all the way back to defence (at times even Stekelenburg) first.
The WOW! Factor
Total Football – finally
So far Holland have eschewed their well known style of ‘total football’ (where players interchange positions very frequently) for a more solid game. But, last game, against Uruguay, Robben took on the role of creative midfielder, with Sneijder also creating late on. Everyone was treated to a sublime display of total football in the first half thanks to Kuyt not settling well on his left flank. Kuyt and Robben interchanged wings, van Persie moved back to right midfield and van Bronckhorst to left midfield for a few moments of sensational play. One fantastic moment came after Uruguay scored. Kuyt, the left attacking midfielder (LAM), started the attack playing as left back (LB) and within a few moments received the ball on the right as a right midfielder (RM). Robben also occasionally takes up the centre forward role, switching with the flexible van Persie (who plays CB while defending corner-kicks) during attacks.
The rocks of Holland
Van Bommel and de Jong have been excellent throughout this tournament and they partner each other extremely well. They have probably been the best defensive midfielders of the tournament thus far and except against Uruguay (where De Jong was absent), Stekelenburg and co. In defence have had little (VERY LITTLE) to do. Opposing teams find it hard to sustain attacks with De Jong’s rough approach followed by Van Bommel’s firm tackle. That Van Bommel picked up his first card (a yellow) in the dying moments of the last game (for time wasting!) and De Jong has picked up only two cards (given his very rough style of play) is a testament to their skill. One misplaced tackle by De Jong would probably give him a direct red, but so far he has not shied away from his duties – even making sliding tackles in the penalty box (a big no-no even for defenders). Till the end of the Uruguay match, Van Bommel had the most fouls without being carded. He has also made the most successful tackles in this world cup and has been one of the most fouled players of Holland (along with Sneijder).
How they can be stopped
Long balls that completely cut Van Bommel and De Jong out of the game. Constant pressure (as seen from the Uruguay clash) even in defence. As for their attack, it’s pretty impossible to do anything. All four are equally capable and man-marking them is not possible. The best strategy would be to score and get 10 men behind the ball. The Dutch have still scored when teams employed this strategy (eg: Japan/Denmark) and maybe that’s the reason they are the only team yet to lose a match at this cup.
van Bronckhorst & Dirk Kuyt v/s Sergio Ramos
Sergio Ramos tends to find space to make runs in every match for Spain but with van Bronckhorst FINALLY returning to form and Dirk Kuyt – who is very good in his defensive duties – frequently tracking back, Ramos’ attacks may be rendered ineffective. Again.
Van der Wiel v/s Iniesta
Back from suspension, van der Wiel will be raring to have a go. Iniesta frequently moves into a LM (or CAM) position from a LCAM and van der Wiel will be responsible for cutting him out. His runs that provide Robben support (and allow Robben to switch to CAM) will also be interesting to see.
Sneijder v/s Busquets
Since Sneijder plays a LCAM position, his opposing number will be the RCDM – Busquets. LOL! (Can’t say much more)
Robben v/s Capdevila
Like Hashir wonderfully pointed out, even the strongest teams have the weakest left backs – Germany, Brazil, Holland, Argentina and Spain. This has left Robben with a delicious opportunity to run circles around the defence and work his magic. Capdevila has been growing in stature (though maybe not in defensive abilities) and with Spain playing full backs mainly as wing backs (who don’t help out in defence), it may be interesting to see what transpires.
Van Bommel & De Jong v/s Xavi & Iniesta
THE clash of the match. The best defensive midfielder pairing in the world (at the moment) against the best attack midfielder pairing in the world (at the moment). A mouth watering clash is sure with Xavi and Iniesta frequently engaging the Spanish team with arrays of short passes, just the kind Van Bommel & De Jong have become experts at stopping. Against Brazil we mentioned that the winners of this battle would win the match and that statement can’t be more true than it is now – against Spain. Xavi is the motor of the Spanish team and Iniesta creates all their attacks. They both win the ball (with Busquets being pretty inadequate in that department) and ‘restart’ attacks. Spain’s attacks have been few this tournament, but almost all have started with Iniesta. An early yellow card to any of these players would significantly tilt the scales in the other team’s favour!
Holland’s substitutes are the strongest in the tournament (or maybe second to Spain). Eljero Elia, Huntelaar and Afellay are the usual 3 substitutes. They have been exemplary with their only flaw being inexperience. Elia, like van Persie, frequently uses his collection of tricks, turns and fakes before running past full backs like they don’t exist. Huntelaar is a typical poacher and although he is capable of making runs, he is best when the ball is giving to him in the box. Afellay’s crosses and midfield magic are capable of confusing opponents just from the sheer difference from the first-team players but he has yet to reach the heights he was playing at in the pre-world cup friendlies with inch perfect crosses to van Persie creating Holland’s goals.
Predicted match rating: 4/5
Predicted winner: Holland (don’t change this)
S: 5/5 (Busquets playing and Spain not keeping possession)
3/5 (If Spain manages to keep possession or Busquets doesn’t play)