09 July 2010

Spain v Holland 07.11.10

Live in the US on ABC at 2:30pm

Guess at line-ups:
Ramos Pique Puyol Capdevila
Busquets Alonso
Iniesta Xavi Villa

Van der Wiel Heitinga Mathijsen Van Bronckhorst
De Jong Van Bommel
Robben Sneijder Kuyt
Van Persie

A football romantic's dream final, and one of the best and worst early birthday presents I've ever received (Monday, thanks for asking). I adore and detest this match-up, somehow at the same time. One of the four teams I've done reviews on and root for will win the World Cup (and it's not like England or the US was going to), and I have no idea who I'd prefer. The worst possible moment to be a sports bigamist. I regret this decision immensely.

A win would exorcise countless demons for either country. Spain were perennially tortured in major tournaments until two years ago, while Holland's legendary generation (and I do not use that word lightly; they are literally Beowulf-style stuff of legends) lost in consecutive World Cup finals. The 1974 team remains the apotheosis of both total football and the capriciousness of a 1-0 lead. And now, Spain's playing the role of Clockwork Orange as archetypes of the beautiful game, while Holland have been this tournament's pragmatic utilitarians. Even Cruyff's declaring Spain a descendant of totaalvoetbal, and he's kind of right. Somewhere along the line, Spain became Barca (which still has Cruyff's fingerprints all over it), and that opens a whole different sociopolitical can of worms.

Both of these teams deserve to be here: Holland beating the pre-tournament favorites in the quarterfinals, Spain beating the "team of the tournament so far" in the semis. Plus, and most importantly, each side has two players from Liverpool FC, two of which with an excellent chance of starting. I would absolutely adore seeing Reina and Torres (and – I'll readily admit it – Alonso too) or Kuyt and Babel lift the cup. It actually makes my brain hurt.

At the moment, and as it usually the case by this time of the tournament, both teams basically write themselves. The only question is whether Torres will come back into Spain's XI.

10 Spanish players have started every game – Torres was replaced by Silva in the first match and Pedro in the most recent (incidentally, those are the only two games where Villa failed to score). Only Mathijsen (warm-up injury), de Jong (suspension), and van der Wiel (twice: trying to avoid suspension, then getting suspended later on anyway) have missed matches for Holland. All are available here, and my guess is that Torres returns, although my clear bias probably affects that.

Don't get me wrong; other than "that incident" in the 82nd minute on Wednesday (still angry), Pedro played fairly well – especially in the first half. Him over Silva or Cesc seemed the smarter decision if Torres wasn't starting. But while Pedro did well to create an early chance, spread the field marginally more (he still moved centrally quite often), and added more pace to the attack, Villa looked far worse for it.

Even if Torres isn't fully fit or his runs aren't as threatening, he still draws defenders solely out of fear, and he draws them into spaces that Villa exploits. All too often, Villa was double-teamed by Friedrich and Mertesacker. He may find Heitinga and Mathijsen easier to exploit, but, regardless, that does not happen with Torres on the field, even if he's on one leg. Shifting to Pedro, Cesc, Llorente, or Silva around the hour mark if necessary, as against Portugal and Paraguay, seems a safer option. That and I just find it hard to believe that Fernando Torres could be left out of a World Cup final. The one argument I can come up with for Pedro over Torres is because of Kuyt v Ramos. Kuyt's diligence will pin Ramos deeper than any game so far; Pedro would add more presence on the right than Iniesta's constant cutting in.

Dirk Kuyt will almost certainly become the third Liverpool player to play in a World Cup final – behind Hunt in 1966 and Hamann in 2002. Torres should be the fourth at the least; even if he doesn't start, he'd probably still come off the bench. And this would be the fourth consecutive World Cup final with teammates starting on opposite sides if Nando makes it – Karembeu/Roberto Carlos in '98, Lucio versus three from Bayern in 2002, and Thuram versus three from Juventus in 2006. And this time it'd be representing Liverpool. Unless, of course, Silva starts for Spain and/or van der Vaart for Holland, which would give City or Real the honor.

I don't want to curse la Roja, but they're clearly favorites. Holland are very good at attacking at pace – not as reliant on the counter as Germany, more comfortable in possession – but they'll still be forced to defend more because of Spain's supremacy at the possession game. Spain will press and press when without the ball, and Busquets will attempt to shut down Sneijder as he did Özil. Not only that, but with the exception of Holland's inside-out wingers – with Robben a near certainty to cut infield, while Kuyt's done well to add some width on the left – their formation is exceptionally similar to Germany's: a fairly standard 4-2-3-1, even though Holland's a lot more fluid amongst the front four. If the Dutch replicate their second half against Brazil, they can stifle Spain, if not take the game to them, but Holland still needed a bit of luck and some insanity from Felipe Melo. Van Bommel, De Jong, Heitinga, and Mathijsen will have to be very, very good. But that goes for everyone in orange.

Spain has used almost the same XI (and assuredly the same style despite the addition of a holding midfielder) as the European Championship-winning side; Pique, Busquets, and Pedro (and Navas to a lesser extent) are the only substantial changes. They play a certain way, and even if it's not as awe-inspiring as the Euro 2008 model, it's been just as effective.

Holland have had an outstanding tournament, and I will feel terrible if they fail in their third World Cup final – especially for Kuyt, naturally. But it's Spain's trophy to lose. And, not to end on too trite a sentiment, having these two countries in the final means that football wins no matter the result.

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