Golden boy Villa to help fire Spain into history
European champions are peaking at the right time and can become kings of the world in what could be the best final since 1986
Sunday 11 July 2010
This evening's World Cup final at Soccer City is destined to make history, with new champions becoming the first European side to win outside that continent. What football needs, more importantly than a statistical footnote, is for two exciting teams to live up to their reputation for what is potentially the best final since the last genuinely riveting one, in 1986.
That was the day in Mexico City when West Germany, two goals behind, came back to equalise in the last 10 minutes, only to be beaten as a chunky little magician called Diego Maradona sent Jorge Burruchaga through to score.
If no one has imposed himself on the current tournament in the irresistible manner of Maradona 24 years ago, Holland's Wesley Sneijder and Spain's David Villa find themselves on opposing sides today, duelling for the honour of becoming, in all probability, not only leading scorer but most valuable player.
Before the first game kicked off, the member of their respective squads most likely to have been in contention for those prizes would have been Robin van Persie and Fernando Torres. Yet each has been a victim of the toll that Premier League football takes and one of the two is not even expected to start the final.
Torres has averaged 46 minutes in each of his six appearances to date, managing two shots on target in four and a half hours on the pitch. His new hairstyle has been about as lucky an omen as Samson's, and that wise old bear of a manager Vicente del Bosque, having made the tough decision in dropping him for the semi-final, would be foolhardy to reverse it unless Villa's dead leg is causing more trouble than is believed.
In the deserved victory over a disappointing – perhaps weary – Germany, Torres's replacement, Pedro Rodriguez, showed all the verve and movement that the Liverpool man has lacked since his knee operation. Familiar with half a dozen of the Spanish side as Barcelona club-mates, Pedro is able to operate wide on either flank or drift anywhere along the line, effectively enabling his team to match up with Holland's favoured 4-2-3-1 system. If there is a concern for Spain it is that Villa looked a little less comfortable in the main striker's position than coming in off the left wing, from where he had overshadowed Torres in the earlier games.
Three successive 1-0 wins and a total of seven goals in six games, with only three scorers (Villa, Andres Iniesta and Carles Puyol) does scant justice to the creativity of the side. Shocked by Switzerland in the opening game, they required two goals by Villa to beat a limited Honduras and have subsequently defeated Chile, Portugal, Paraguay and the Germans by only a single goal. The semi-final performance, however, suggested a side finding their best form at a perfect time.
They will pass and pass round the spokes of that midfield wheel, and it would make sense for the Dutch to revert to their use of two defensive midfielders as the best means of inflicting a puncture. Nigel de Jong of Manchester City is available again, and he and Mark van Bommel will relish getting among their opponents.
Their means may not always be legitimate, however, and the English referee Howard Webb will require a policeman's vigilance and judgement in order to ensure that justice is done. For all the protests of Van Bommel's father-in-law, the Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk ("he has shown great discipline"), it was truly extraordinary that the Bayern captain should have lasted until the fifth minute of added time in the semi-final before collecting his first yellow card of the tournament.
The belligerent pair of enforcers, having won the ball, are both capable of using it to good effect as well, even if that is not their primary function. They will find Sneijder, Arjen Robben and Dirk Kuyt all in sufficiently confident mood to demand possession and well equipped to do some damage, as they have demonstrated for much of the remarkable run of 25 unbeaten matches, encompassing 14 successive wins in competitive games.
Only Brazil's celebrated team of 1970 have won the World Cup with a 100 per cent record right through from the qualifying stage.
Sneijder is clearly in the form of his life and is capable of breaking all sorts of records this evening, when he could add a World Cup-winner's medal to those harvested in Internazionale's triumphant treble under Jose Mourinho. Robben, like Van Bommel a loser to his compatriot in the Champions' League final, has added spark to Holland's game from the moment he appeared as a substitute in the third group match, setting up a goal for Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and then scoring a spectacular one in the next match against Slovakia. Operating mainly on the right, coming inside on his favoured left foot or going past the full-back to the byline, Robben has been outstanding ever since.
As for Kuyt, dubbed the Duracell Bunny, on the other flank, it is a shock to see him emerge from the dressing-room after a game at mere walking pace instead of full speed. "We are going to attack and then you will see weakness coming to the surface," Kuyt has promised.
If weakness exists in the Spanish defence, he and his colleagues will do well to find it. In the space behind the adventurous full-backs Sergio Ramos and Joan Capdevila perhaps? It is hard to discern much in the central defensive Barcelona partnership of Puyol's old head (used well to thump the winning semi-final goal against Germany) and Gerard Pique's young legs, which took him back home from Manchester United in his impatience for regular football.
Ramos and the goalkeeper Iker Casillas form a Real Madrid trium-virate with Xabi Alonso; the Barça centre-backs have four club-mates immediately in front of them in Sergio Busquets, who has grown appreciably during the tournament, plus Iniesta, Xavi and Pedro.
All that familiarity forged on the training grounds of rebel Catalonia and royal Madrid has over the last few years blended together in a harmony that Spanish squads have rarely managed in the past. Hence the 2008 triumph in Vienna and the possibility of emulating Germany in 1974 and France 10 years ago by becoming champions of both Europe and the world.
Dutch football not having the money to keep its stars like Spain's can, Van Marwijk's troops are more far-flung, eight of the likely starting XI playing in either England, Italy or Germany. Only the full-backs and goalkeeper play in Holland and the latter, Ajax's Maarten Stekelenburg, may prove a weak link. In front of him, Everton's John Heitinga and Hamburg's Joris Mathijsen also look less solid than their opposite numbers, having not kept a clean sheet for five games, as opposed to a unit that has been penetrated only twice in six.
So Spain to win, just, which will leave us with one outcome that could have earned an awful lot of money as a pre-tournament bet – the New Zealanders the only team to go home undefeated.
Holland (4-2-3-1, probable): Stekelenburg; Van der Wiel, Heitinga, Mathijsen, Van Bronckhorst; Van Bommel, De Jong; Robben, Sneijder, Kuyt; Van Persie.
Spain (4-2-3-1, probable): Casillas; Sergio Ramos, Pique, Puyol, Capdevila; Busquets, Alonso; Iniesta, Xavi, Pedro; Villa.
The match is live on BBC1 and ITV1 (7.30pm kick-off)
Incredibly, Spain and Holland have never met in the World Cup or European Championship finals. Here are their results in friendlies and two European qualifiers over the years.
Friendly: 30 January 1957, Madrid Spain 5 (Garay, Kubala, Di Stefano 3), Holland 1 (Bosselaar)
Spain enjoyed the fact that Alfredo Di Stefano chose to play the majority of his international football for them rather than Argentina and Columbia. He showed his ability here, scoring a wonderful hat-trick.
Friendly: 2 May 1973, Amsterdam Holland 3 (Rep, Reina og, Cruyff), Spain 2 (Valdez 2)
One of the world's finest footballers, Johan Cruyff, scored a last-minute winner. Pepe Reina's dad, Miguel, the Spanish goalkeeper, scored an own goal. Cruyff then led the Dutch to the 1974 World Cup final, where they lost 2-1 to hosts West Germany.
Friendly: 23 January 1980, Vigo Spain 1 (Daniel Ruiz), Holland 0
Holland had lost to the hosts, Argentina, in the 1978 World Cup final. Many thought their "total football" would see off Spain but the only goal came from a substitute.
Euro 84 qualifier: 16 February 1983, Seville Spain 1 (Senor), Holland 0
Drawn in the same qualifying group for the first time, in the lead-up to France '84, Spain won a tight affair, central midfielder Juan Antonio Senor converting a penalty on the stroke of half-time.
Euro 84 qualifier: 16 November 1983, Rotterdam Holland 2 (Houtman, Gullit), Spain 1 (Carlos Alonso)
Dutch legend Ruud Gullit scored the winner but it was too little too late for the Dutch, who failed to progress from the group. Spain went through on goals scored, mainly thanks to a 12-1 thrashing of Malta, and reached the final of Euro 84 but lost 2-0 to France in the final. Michel Platini scored both those goals.
Friendly: 21 January 1987, Barcelona Spain 1 (Ramon Maria Caldere), Holland 1 (Gullit)
Dutch football was in transition after a failure to qualify for the 1986 World Cup. Spain had reached the quarter-finals in Mexico, where they lost on penalties to Belgium. Another Gullit goal came in a low-key friendly.
Friendly, 15 November 2000, Seville Spain 1 (Hierro), Holland 2 (Hasselbaink, Frank de Boer)
Spain had reached the quarter-finals at Euro 2000, losing 2-1 to the eventual winners, France. Holland, co-hosts of the tournament with Belgium, went out on penalties to Italy in the semi-final. Real Madrid centre-back Fernando Hierro opened the scoring but Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Rangers centre-back Frank de Boer won it for the Dutch.
Friendly, 27 March 2002, Rotterdam Holland 1 (Frank de Boer), Spain 0
The Dutch had failed to qualify for the 2002 World Cup, losing out to Portugal and Ireland in qualifying. This was a warm-up for Spain, who had qualified, although another De Boer goal saw them off.
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