[SPAIN-NETHERLANDS] For the eighth time, the World Cup final is an all-Euro showdown, and the 2010 edition will not only crown a first-time champion, it will also produce either the first team to win the title after losing its first group game (Spain), or a nation winning a final after losing twice (Netherlands).
On the dubious side, the Dutch could also be the first team to lose a third final without winning at least one. They lost to the host nation both times in excruciating circumstances: in 1974 to West Germany, 2-1, after taking the lead in the first minute, and four years later in overtime to Argentina, 3-1, after scoring a late equalizer and then hitting the post in the 89th minute.
Spain is in its first final, and along with the Dutch is the most prestigious soccer nation never to win the World Cup. Early in the competition it labored under the pressures and expectations laden onto it and the other pre-tournament darling, Brazil, which the Netherlands dispatched, 2-1, in the quarterfinals after falling behind early.
In addition to surrendering that disheartening goal by Robinho in the 10th minute, the Netherlands has given away two penalty kicks, and conceded an equalizer to Cameroon in its final group game before snagging a late winner from substitute Klaas Jan-Huntelaar. The Dutch also played their first two group matches – victories over Denmark (2-0) and Japan (1-0) – without effervescent winger Arjen Robben. They’ve won all six of their World Cup games in regulation, yet it can’t be said the Dutch haven’t overcome some adversity.
As the clear favorite in Group E, the Dutch were expected to finish ahead of Denmark, Japan, and Cameroon, and duly did so as one of only two teams taking maximum points, the other being Argentina.
Without Robben, Coach Bert van Marwijk used Liverpool’s Dirk Kuyt on the right side of midfield and Rafael Van der Vaart on the left as the wide players in support of forward Robin Van Persie. Attacking mid Wesley Sneijder’s ability come deep to start attacks and also get forward to support them or finish them off hasn’t been contained by any opponent to date.
Robben made his first appearance in the third group game against Cameroon in the 70th minute, and set up the winner 13 minutes later when his shot rebounded off the post for Huntelaar to stick into the net.
Robben has scored twice in the knockout phase with a cutback move and left-footed shot against Slovakia, and a header to clinch the 3-2 semifinal defeat of Uruguay. His pace, change of direction, and eagerness to shoot have sparked a offensive surge by the Dutch, who have scored seven goals in the last three games with him in the starting lineup.
Five different players – including an own goal by Danish defender Daniel Agger – scored for the Netherlands in the group phase. Sneijder leads the team with five goals, and beyond him there’s balance; in addition to Robben’s pair, single goals have been registered by Van Persie, Kuyt, Huntelaar, and left back – and captain – Giovanni Van Bronckhorst, whose spectacular 35-yard blast into the top corner of Uruguay’s goal could well be voted best goal of the competition.
Van Marwijk needed to replace two starters because of suspension against Uruguay. Demy De Zeeuw took Nigel De Jong’s central midfield spot, and Khalid Boulahrouz took over for Gregory Van der Weil at right back. Neither replacement lasted the match, and despite the Dutch’s impressive run of a half-dozen wins, they haven’t recorded a shutout in the last four games.
By contrast, Spain has rolled into the final on a string of one-goal victories (including three consecutive 1-0 wins) and the scoring of David Villa after Switzerland stung it with a 1-0 defeat to open the competition. Villa scored both goals in a 2-0 defeat of Honduras that restored Spain’s confidence, and he netted again along with Andres Iniesta to down Chile, 2-1, and take top spot in Group H.
Villa scored in the 63rd minute to beat a Portuguese team that seldom mounted a threat, and in their quarterfinal the Spaniards had to endure a wild, back-to-back swap of missed penalty kicks to subdue Paraguay with a Villa goal just seven minutes before the end of regulation. Paraguay's pressure in the first half jarred Spain out its rhthym and nearly stole the match.
Coach Vicente del Bosque has not juggled his personnel much, except to drop sputtering forward Fernando Torres for the semifinal defeat of Germany. For that match he added Pedro, who distracted and confused the Germans with slick touches in every nook and cranny of the attacking third while playing as a winger/second forward. Otherwise the midfield has remained intact, though the alignment and patterns of play have varied. And somehow, Spain has gone through six World Cup games without a suspension.
The cohesion and continuity of Iniesta, Xavi, Xabi Alonso and Sergio Basquets has highlighted with each game, and for long intervals the outflanked Germans chased shadows fruitlessly in pursuit of the ball. Some fine goalkeeping by Manuel Neuer kept Spain at bay until defender Carles Puyol crashed home a dramatic header from Xavi’s corner kick.
Spain rode out the remaining minutes to win a knockout semifinal for the first time. It stands ready to eradicate decades of disappointment against a foe bearing its own stigma of failure at the final hurdle.
Paths to the final
own goal 46, Kuyt 85
Villa 17, 51
Villa 24, Iniesta 37
Van Persie 36, Huntelaar 83
|Round of 16
Robben 18, Sneijder 84
Sneijder 53, 68
Van Bronckhorst 18, Sneijder 70, Robben 73
||Villa (5 goals)
||Sneijder (5 goals)