World Cup Final Preview

Previews and predictions for Sunday’s World Cup final between Netherlands and Spain are all over the internet, the so-called experts–including a German octopus–offering their take on what is a mouth-watering match-up between two teams with skill in spades. But did any of those pundits tell you to bet the Netherlands at 12-1 to win the whole shebang?

I think not. Which qualifies Soccerati as the most learned place in the universe to get your football information. Here then, the keys to Sunday’s final.

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Spanish coach Vincente Del Bosque made the correct, though potentially controversial, decision to leave striker Fernando Torres out of the Starting XI in the semi-final against Germany. The Liverpool hit-man is both out of shape and form and the insertion of Pedro in his stead resulted in Spain’s finest performance yet. Though moving David Villa from the left to the lone striker position, saw the tournament’s joint top-scorer receive less service, he did keep the ball moving, which Torres has been unable to do, and added more fluidity to the Spanish attack. Yes, they scored only the one goal, but that was largely due to Germany stacking 8 players inside 25 yards of their own goal. I don’t think that was the German strategy coming in. Rather, I believe they were so stunned by the Spanish movement in the first 20 minutes, that they naturally fell back on their heels, a reaction the Dutch must avoid.

In contrast, Dutch Gaffer Bert van Marwijk has resisted replacing his under-performing striker, Robin van Persie. The petulant Arsenal man also appears a step slow and has but a single goal in this World Cup. Unfortunately for van Marwijk, he can’t go to a Pedro or a David Silva. His lone options are Klass-Jan Huntelaar (also out of form) and Ryan Babel (stale and generally incompetent), so van Persie it is.

Tactically, the Dutch will handle Spain differently than did the back-tracking Germans. Midfield destroyers Marc van Bommel and Nigel de Jong will look to engage Xavi and Andreas Iniesta early and often. Where the Germans simply tried to keep the ball in front of them, allowing the stylish Spanish play-makers to dance around at will, van Bommel and de Jong will pressure the ball higher up the pitch and look to disrupt the flow of the Spanish movements. This decision will also include a lot of fouls, something at which the two Dutchmen are more than adept, so the game will be more choppy, which works against the Spanish.

The Dutch weakness in defense is their two centrebacks, who are unlikely to contain Villa’s pace and guile, so I expect the outside backs, Gregory Van Der Wiel and Giovanni Van Bronckhorst, to pull inside to help. This is a tactic that has worked well against the Spanish–clogging the center and conceding the flanks–as we saw in their tourney-opening loss to Switzerland and in the Confederations Cup semi-final last summer against the United States.

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Out wide, the key match-up will be between Arjen Robben and Sergio Ramos. The Dutch winger frequently starts on the right, but will switch often with Dirk Kuyt on the opposite flank, thus matching up with the marauding Spanish right back. Robben’s pace and general danger should eliminate some of those forays forward, taking away one of the Spanish options. If Sergio Ramos insists on coming forward anyway, Robben will find space and one-on-one opportunities against centrebacks Gerard Pique and Carlos Puyol, which favors the Oranj.

Aside from Robben, the Dutch will rely on Wesley Sneijder to continue to orchestrate their attacks. With five goals in the tournament so far, all of them of an opportunistic nature, the play-maker has shown he needs but the slightest glimpse of daylight to convert his chances. He will be closely shadowed by Sergio Busquests, who, though he is eclipsed by the bigger names on the Spanish squad, has been invaluable in breaking up opposing attacks all tournament long.

Because of the attacking nature of both sides, many expect a wide-open final, but the Dutch have been less adventurous than previous incarnations of their Total Football. While I believe they will force the issue offensively more than any of Spain’s prior opponents this tournament, they will still rely on the steel of van Bommel and de Jong to cause chaos. As such, the game will be a cagey affair, with both sides unwilling to let the play flow too freely.

At the end, I’m sticking with the Dutch. 2-1 Netherlands in an absorbing, if not all together beautiful, final.

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Essien Out and Other Injuries

Ghana captain Michael Essien has been ruled out of the World Cup as he has not recovered from a knee injury picked up in the African Cup of Nations in January. The absence of the Chelsea midfielder, Ghana’s most accomplished player, is a huge setback to the Black Stars and they must now be considered long-shots to get out of Group D, which includes Germany, Serbia and Australia.

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In other injury news, Spain’s Fernando Torres returned to full training with the Euro 2008 champions after six weeks on the sidelines with a knee injury, a certain boost to the co-favorites (with Brazil) and likely also to those clubs hoping to pry the striker away from Anfield later this summer. Torres recently rubbished his agent’s statements alluding to the star staying with Liverpool after a distasterous campaign, raising red flags all over Merseyside, and also at my house.

Closer to home (home, in this case being Group C), England gaffer Fabio Capello is not yet ready to rule out Gareth Barry, who continues to rehab an ankle injury suffered earlier this month. Barry, Capello’s preferred defensive midfielder, had scans on the ankle this week that were inconclusive. Considering the middling performances of James Milner and Michael Carrick against Mexico, it’s clear Capello will consider Barry until the last possible moment.

U.S. players with questionable health include the (many times) aforementioned Oguchi Onyewu. Some pundits claimed he looked about 60-70% against the Czechs, but I’d say that assessment is rather optimistic. Centreback Jay DeMerit, with his new cornea, appears recovered from a strained abdominal muscle, as does captain Carlos Bocanegra, who underwent a recent hernia operation. Though U.S. fans will breathe easier regarding those diagnoses if both take the field Saturday for the U.S. team’s final stateside friendly against Turkey in Philly.

Do You Believe In…Altidore

 

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We won! We won! No seriously, we won. The US scored a huge upset today by defeating the #1 team in the world, ESPANA! The win (thanks to goals from Jozy Altidore & Clint Dempsey) means our guys advance to the finals of the FIFA Confederations Cup where they’ll face either Brazil or host country South Africa.

US v Spain Highlights

Last week, the US need a stars-and-moons-aligned miracle just to get out of the group stage and now they’re playing in the finals. Man, I love soccer.

I’ve Soiled Myself

US 3-Egypt 0. Brazil 3-Italy 0. And the place goes nuts, only problem is no one here seems to care. It was without a doubt one of the most unexpected wins in the history of the national team. Sure if they only had to score a goal or try for a tie, then the possibility of the team advancing would not have been too implausible. But you had to win by three and hope, hope mind you that Brazil thumps the current world champions by three. In other words you needed everything that could go right to go right, and anything less than that and Bob Bradley is in the unemployment line. And how confident was the Brad Man? He started Brad Guzan in the net, benching Tim Howard for the game.

I’ve said this before, Bradley needs to create some serious waves for him to keep his job. And while beating Egypt may not be akin to beating Spain, the circumstances the team faced may be the spark the team and coach need to make a strong statement for next year’s World Cup.