In a World Cup of upsets, from France, Italy and England making embarrassing early departures, to Brazil's failure and Germany's sparkling progress, it will require another sizeable one to prevent Spain from becoming world champions at Soccer City tomorrow night.
It has not been a classic tournament, at times it has been barely lukewarm, but there is enough talent on show in Johannesburg to provide a classic finale. A World Cup is judged on its final and for all that Spain, with their brilliant midfield, spearheaded by the razor-sharp David Villa, are huge favourites to eventually lift the trophy, a Dutch side that includes Wesley Sneijder, Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben can make it a game to remember – as long as they are on absolute top form. These three need to produce the games of their lives.
In Holland's favour, they are capable of playing an awful lot better than they have for much of the tournament. Apart from that second half against Brazil they have not performed that well. But they are a philosophical lot and I don't think that will bother them. They have sussed out the idea of tournament football. Two years ago at the Euros they started off well – they were fantastic against Italy and France – but when it came to the knock-out stage they ran out of momentum. This time they have ground it out; winning has been the first, and only, priority.
My worry for them is that even if the big three produce, then you look at their back four and the doubts return. I cannot see them keeping Spain out for 90 minutes. Neither the full-backs nor the centre-halves convince. When Giovanni van Bronckhorst was at Arsenal as a much younger player he rarely made the first team as a full-back. With over 100 caps to his name, his experience will get him through plenty of situations but coming up against a team like Spain is something else altogether. With Pedro and Sergio Ramos to deal with he could be exposed. On the other flank, Gregory van der Wiel is the opposite in terms of experience – he's 13 years younger – and has the makings of a top-level player. He is good going forward but has much to learn in defence, and Spain can deliver a harsh lesson.
You move forward into midfield and the job just gets even more difficult. What a task Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong face – somehow they have to get to grips with the best midfield in the world. With Fernando Torres now likely to be left on the bench, it adds an even greater threat as Pedro impressed against Germany in the semi-final. Spain will have enough numbers in midfield to allow Sergio Busquets or Xabi Alonso to sit on Sneijder for 10 minutes if he is causing problems, and the gallng thing for the Dutch is that it will not take anything away from Spain's attacking threat. Their midfield is so mobile they can afford to sacrifice a player for a period of the game to nullify their opponents.
Van Bommel and De Jong have been effective, although Van Bommel has also been lucky not to pick up more yellow cards. He is the enforcer. He is not the most mobile but he puts his foot in to break up the opposition's attacks – and he's not fussy whether he takes man or ball. His fear, and Holland's, will be the Dutch midfield running out of numbers as Andres Iniesta and Xavi weave their patterns and pass and move and pass and move.
Spain surprised me – and surprised the Germans even more – in the semi-final with how high they pressed. It knocked the wind right out of the German sails. They came into the game as the team in form, brimming with confidence, but from the start there was only one side in it. In a tournament like this it is about peaking. Spain have got progressively better, and now they have worked out what to do with Torres, the one problem that dogged them through the early stages. It was a tough decision but Vicente del Bosque has got it right again.
Spain's strength is their incredible fluidity, especially in the centre of midfield. Xavi and Iniesta can appear anywhere and everywhere at any point of the game. Switzerland, the one side to have beaten them, tried to pack the centre and forget about the flanks, but in Ramos and Joan Capedevila, Spain have full-backs who can cause real damage. Ramos, in particular, will run all day. Switzerland were fortunate to catch Spain on a rare – very rare – off-day and adopting a siege mentality is no way to approach a World Cup final.
Spain's only other defeat in the last four years was by the United States in last year's Confederations Cup but again I didn't see anything in that game which can be exploited as a weak point – although the athleticism and fitness of the US was a factor. Communication will be key for the Dutch back-line, they must know where each defender is at all times and they must keep an equal distance between each other and not get sucked out of position by the Spanish movement. With only Villa to mark centrally, there will be a temptation to step forward and help out in midfield, especially if they are being over-run there. That is what happened to Germany. The midfield was pushed right back because Spain held such a high line so when the Germans finally got hold of the ball they were deep in their own half. You could see how much the opening 20 minutes of chasing the game took out of them. It was a tactical triumph for Del Bosque and I expect him to play the same way tomorrow night.
There is one avenue that the Dutch can explore. Because Spain play such a high line and their full-backs like to push on it leaves plenty of space behind. That is something Holland may be able to use Van Persie's pace to exploit. The Arsenal man is good at making diagonal runs away from the centre-halves – he is quicker than Gerard Pique or Carles Puyol – and getting into the open areas behind the full-backs.
Look for the Dutch to try the ball over the top in the first 15 minutes and seek to get into that space. If it works a couple of times, it will make the Spanish full-backs think again about getting forward and if their attacking line drops deeper it gives the Dutch more space, enabling them to push up the field.
To do that though they have to get the ball and against Spain that will be no easy matter – they better hope they win the toss and kick off!
1. Ozil has been my main man of the World Cup
My favourite player of the World Cup has been Mesut Ozil, even if he didn't have his best performance in the semi-final. It looked like a game too far for him, and some of his team-mates, but the experience they have had will stand them in good stead for years to come. He was a pleasure to watch, as were his team, Germany.
2. Three of a kind and they are all welcome at Arsenal
If I could buy one player for Arsenal from what I have seen out here it would be Ozil, although a small, tricky midfielder is not exactly what they need. Failing that it would be Iniesta or Villa – two more small, tricky players. It must be an Arsenal thing...
3. Chilean 'strangers' blow hot in attack
I knew a little of Ozil before the tournament but the two "strangers" who most impressed me were the two Chilean attackers, Alexis Sanchez and Matias Fernandez. They summed up their side, playing with a little bit of flair and a lot less caution than many of the teams on show.
4. Tshabalala's flamboyant finish kick-started it all
My highlight of the World Cup came in the very first game with the very first goal. It was not just the move and Siphiwe Tshabalala's flamboyant finish for South Africa, but the whole moment of the hosts scoring their first goal in the finals. It was an amazing spectacle and got the whole event off to a great start. The buzz throughout the tournament has been fantastic. I have spent most of it in Cape Town and the city has been bouncing throughout.
5. Plane diversion gave angry fans fuel for thought
While some of the football has not been great – there have not been many classic games – off the field the World Cup feels like it has been a great success, with just the odd glitch. And I just happened to be caught in the middle of one of them. I was supposed to go to Durban for the Spain v Germany semi-final but was on one of the planes that were diverted to Johannesburg because there was no space at the airport. The flight was packed with German and Spanish fans and they were not too happy to put it mildly, but then the pilot said we only had enough fuel to make it to Jo'burg and the complaints stopped pretty quickly.Reuse content