The 2010 World Cup is winding its way to a conclusion, with two European teams in the Final, neither of whom has ever won a World Cup. I think it is great for both nations and for the world, really; it means that the Final will be an historic moment and a compelling story no matter what happens. I am looking forward to Sunday's big match with a lot of excitement and hope the game is a classic. What could make it so? More on that later. First a look back at how we got here...
The Netherlands 3-2 Uruguay
My Prediction: The Netherlands
The first semi-final match between The Netherlands and Uruguay was an exciting match that saw both teams play attacking, engaging football; five goals in a World Cup Semifinal is a huge compliment to both teams, proof positive that playing on the front foot and going for the win is certain to entertain the supporters. No question that the Dutch had control of the game early, pinning Uruguay back, and in the 18th minute, Giovanni van Bronckhorst fired in a rocket from the left wing that was perfectly placed into the upper right hand corner of the goal. It was a shot that no one could have a saved, a perfect lightning bolt that put the Dutch up 1-0 early and which really changed the tone of the match; Uruguay went searching for a goal, allowing the Dutch to attack through Arjen Robben and Dirk Kuyt on the wings. But despite rush of Dutch ambition, nothing could have prepared them for Diego Forlan's 41st minute goal, another brilliant shot from outside the box from the striker that brought the game level through halftime. Tied and in need of something special to win the match, both nations opened up in the second half, with a tough, physical duel in the midfield being won by Mark Van Bommel, whose crunching tackles seemed the antithesis of his teammates' proclivity for drawing fouls of their own. In the end, though, Dutch firepower saw them through; Wesley Sniejder did it again, scoring a controversial goal that slipped past an offside Robin Van Persie and into the corner of the net? Had Van Persie impeded Uruguayan keeper Fernando Muslera?
Play on then, and only three minutes later, Dirk Kuyt, who has been brilliant for the Dutch in the Tournament, lifted a perfect cross to the head of Arjen Robben, who buried it inside the post to make the match 3-1 in the 73rd minute. Only a last gasp goal from Maxi Pereira in extra time seemed to indicate the possibility of a grand finale, but with Suárez suspended and Forlan already substituted because of exhaustion, Uruguay didn't have enough goalscoring threat in the dying minutes to complete the comeback. The Netherlands, who have been in two finals before (1974 and 1978) but who have never won a World Cup, moved on to the final game, while Uruguay settled for a place in the third place match. It was a great match...
Spain 1-0 Germany
My Prediction: Germany
Spain absolutely dominated the midfield against Germany but, with Fernando Torres benched and Pedro and David Villa struggling to make an impact in front of goal, ended up relying on a headed corner from Carlos Puyol to seal a tense and conservative encounter with Germany, 1-0 in the 72nd minute. For all of the trouble Spain had in breaking down the Germans, Germany faced quadruple the difficulty; with Thomas Müller suspended, Germany were forced to rely on young Mesut Özil and Piotr Trochowski to do battle against Xavi and Andrés Iniesta in the midfield, while Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets kept Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger at bay. The tactics worked completely; Spain dominated possession and the midfield, not allowing the German play makers any time on the ball or the luxury of switching the point of attack. Spain defended in waves very high up the pitch, almost daring the young Germans to try and break them down with their passing; it resembled the ending of The Shining, with a frustrated Germany lost in the maze of the Spanish players, unable to escape. Finally, when Xavi whipped in his corner kick in the 72nd minute and Carlos Puyol crushed it into the top corner of the net, Spain were deservedly on their way to the Final, no amount of German will and organization able to unlock the absolutely masterful Spanish control of the ball and the terms of the match. Unfortunately, for all of their domination, Spain absolutely failed to entertain, and the game was incredibly cagey, each player unwilling to make a costly mistake, always making a negative or conservative play to save face, no one offering a moment of individual greatness (save Puyol) to electrify an otherwise slow and careful match.
The Third Place Match
Germany are winning this one. Neither team has anything to play for, which gives the advantage to the Germans, who can expect their counter attack to be back in full swing with Müller (how did he ever get suspended for a bullshit handball?) rejoining the side and Miroslav Klsoe, in his final World Cup, only needing two more goals to surpass Ronaldo (the Brazilian, not the Portuguese party boy). Germany über Uruguay.
It is hard for me to bet against Paul The Psychic Octopus, who has selected Spain as the winner of the 2010 World Cup, but I am torn about this match. On the one hand, Spain have been living on the edge, playing well but not scoring in bunches and often leaving it very late, pulling out 1-0 victories by the skin of their teeth. Their performance against Germany is proof positive of the efficiency and brilliance of their methods. On the other hand, they haven't really played a team like The Netherlands, with their own attacking maestro in Wesley Sneijder and an incredibly effective and in-form Arjen Robben hauling ass up the right wing (and against Joan Capedevilla, who is not the most pacey and effective left back in the world). There are match-ups that favor the Dutch here, but unfortunately for them, striker is not one of those areas; with David Villa in white-hot form and Robin Van Persie struggling to make an impression, it is hard to bet against the Spanish hit-man getting a goal in this match. It is also possible to imagine that Dirk Kuyt's lack of pace and touch, despite his incredible work rate and his nose for goals and assists, may end up hurting The Netherlands against a ruthlessly possessive Spanish side. Since The Netherlands don't play shut-down defense and since they depend on their midfield, especially Sneijder and Robben, to chip in with goals, I think we may just see a repeat performance from Spain against the Dutch this Sunday; a slow, grinding style, everyone nervous in the Final, everyone cautious not to be the one to mess up. That, for me, plays right into the hands of the Dutch, who play with a carefree attack that relies on the individual brilliance of their players to create opportunities, sometimes from seemingly nothing.
In other words, what this match needs is an early goal; if either side score early, things will open up in a hurry as the other side go in quest of an equalizer. If The Netherlands can come out and play this match without the psychological baggage of being in a Final-- if they just come out and try to play their game, using Sneijder and Robben to their best advantage, and if they can grab an early goal, I think they can win it. Unfortunately, while that may happen, it's just too many "ifs" for me; with Spain likely to cause problems for Van Bommel and De Jong, and with Xavi and Iniesta always seeming to be playing both ways on the ball, I think Spain can beat a Dutch team that hasn't lost in 25 matches.
So, what I am really saying is, it could go either way and it is tough for me to bet against Sneijder in particular who is coming off of a treble winning season for Inter Milan, a team that unlocked Barcelona in the Champions League already; Snejder has already faced Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets, Pique, Puyol and Pedro and come out on top. My main problem is that the quality he had around him at Inter is superior to the Dutch team, while Spain looks like they have finally found their form, just in time for the Final. Hrm. I guess I have to follow the incredible dark gifts of Paul The Psychic Octopus in the end. Spain to win it 2-1.
Winner: Spain (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
Up Next: Recapping The Final Matches