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So it’s come to this: World Cup final preview

July 10, 2010

So, the history books will have a new entry under ‘World Cup Winners’ come Sunday evening. Spain and the Netherlands have both faltered at various stages in the past; this year’s favourites have already come two rounds further than ever before, while the only team to have won all their games in this tournament last reached the final in 1978.

Puyol bags the winner for Spain in the semi - skysports.com

Neither have stormed through to the final like some previous winners – Spain were defeated in their opening game and Netherlands, despite never looking like losing, haven’t truly impressed for long periods. Yet they’ve both made it, so it would be churlish to suggest they don’t deserve to contest the final.

Quite why there needs to be a third-place playoff nobody seems quite sure, but it’s better than watching Casualty on a Saturday night and keeps people who bet on Forlan or Klose for top goalscorer in with a shout of some money. Germany will start as favourites – Paul the psychic octopus has gone for them after all – and were the most impressive side in the tournament until defeat by Spain in the semi-final. It was a shame to say goodbye to their endearing style; controlled, cautious play without the ball turning into a buccaneering yet sensible charge forward on the counter. Yet Spain, unlike England and Argentina, kept the ball superbly themselves and made it difficult for Germany to attack. Germany defended well, as usual, but were finally broken not by a patient, sublime string of passes but by a free header from a corner.

Luis Suarez couldn't help his side against the Dutch - skysports.com

Uruguay played reasonably well in their semi-final and were unlucky to concede a second which could have been given offside. The Netherlands, though, scored another straight after through the irritating but excellent Arjen Robben. It wasn’t clear what difference quarter-final remorseless hero Luis Suarez could have made to Uruguay’s stuttering play going forward, he may have crafted an opening. In the end though, the best team won – just.

Netherlands are an interesting team because they’ve done what they needed to at every stage, and little more. Brazil should have scored more against a frazzled defence in the opening half-hour of their quarter-final clash, but when they didn’t the Dutch preyed on their inadequacies and scored two quick goals – exposing both their hitherto unseen defensive frailties and, later, their indiscipline.

In the group the Orange were – to borrow a couple of buzzwords – functional yet effective, whereas Spain controlled the play in all three games despite losing to Switzerland. Their lack of goals – certainly compared to their Euro 2008 showing – is concerning and against organised defences their lack of width is obvious. Germany were not far from denying them a goal over 90 minutes, though occasional breaches were crafted by Xavi, Pedro, Iniesta and Villa (and, in the end, Puyol).

Jonathan Wilson’s excellent look at the tactical battles of the competition so far discusses how Spain looked more impressive without Villa and Torres trying to play together, though this is perhaps as much down to Torres’s patent unfitness as it is their tactical approach. Wilson’s piece is harsh on Germany who had little need to be ‘reactive’ after scoring early in the knockout rounds, but accurately sums up Spain’s outlook. It is Barca-esque, as expected given the players involved, and it has inevitably found trickier opponents in the later stages than Barcelona usually face.

They should control the game again against Netherlands, though one wonders if Sergio Ramos charges forward (their only potential width on the right) will Robben move left and expose a gap? It is unclear from the TV cameras who fills in – presumably it is Sergio Busquets who is the least attacking of the midfield five (or, sometimes, four), or one of Puyol or Piqu – but they must have someone there or they would likely have been exposed already.

Can Sneijder help the Dutch escape the 'bottlers' tag? - skysports.com

The Dutch seem to enjoy long shots when a pass is the better option. Obviously this worked for Giovanni van Bronckhorst in the semi-final and has sometimes worked for Wesley Sneijder, their best player, but too often they make the wrong choice. Shooting from distance against Spain is probably appealling given the lack of close-range chances they usually concede and frontman Robin van Persie’s lack of form, but it is surely a low-percentage strategy when it comes to outscoring the world’s best passers of the ball. One suspects if David Villa gets two chances, one or both will go in. There is far less confidence in van Persie. The Dutch set pieces cause trouble on occasion, but Spain are favourites, and understandably so.

Predictions:
Germany 2 Uruguay 1
Netherlands 0 Spain 2

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