To answer John’s plaintive question to me a week or two ago, the World Cup ends tomorrow, with the championship match between Spain and Holland. I like both teams, but will be rooting for the Dutch and their proud Evertonian center-back, Johnny Heitinga. My main wish, however, is for a dramatic match (the tournament could really use one at this stage), but one free of a penalty kick shoot-out.
Holland is the clear underdog. But they are among the best five teams in the world and so have a fair shot at winning. A moment of magic from Robben, a pass of genius from Sneijder to Kuyt or Van Persie, a few poor finishes by Spain and/or a top-notch save or two, and Holland wins. The quirks of the game — a deflected shot, a defensive mix-up, a red card, a blown call — could favor Holland, as happened in their win over Brazil. But the Dutch, and in particular Mark Van Bommel and Nigel de Jong, are the leading contenders for a red card in this match (fortunately, the referee, Howard Webb of England, is not at all card-happy).
More likely, though, Spain will win because they are the better side. Holland has played well only intermittently — the second half against Denmark, the second half against Brazil, part of the second half against Uruguay. The same is true of Spain, whose only complete quality match was the victory over Germany in the semi-finals, but they seem to be peaking now.
Moreover, there’s an important difference between what it means for these teams to play badly. When Spain isn’t playing well, it’s usually about an overhit final ball or a scuffed shot. The result is a throw or kick by the goal-keeper. When Holland isn’t playing well, too often it’s about a turnover in midfield or a gap in the defense. The result is a scoring opportunity for the opposition.
I think Holland’s best chance is to press Spain up the field, as Paraguay did for a time. If Holland sits back and Spain gets its short passing game going, I expect Spain to score at least twice. (Holland’s defense isn’t as good as Germany’s). And, deprived of ball possession, Holland will be unlikely to match that output.
If anyone has the personnel to press Spain, it is Holland with its two rugged central midfielders Van Bommel and de Jong. If either picks up a card early, it will be a bad sign for the Dutch.
Pressing Spain is hardly a risk-free strategy even if it doesn’t result in card trouble. The Spanish threat isn’t limited to short passing; Xabi Alonso and others can also carve up a defense with the long through ball, which a pressing defense invites. Thus, to some extent it’s a case of pick your poison.
If I were Bert Van Marwijk, I’d pick the aggressive brand. This Dutch team is a fairly rambunctious group and, with everything on the line, I’d be reluctant to have the players sit back waiting to be carved up in the hope that Spain’s final pass and finishing will be poor.
Whatever the outcome, I’ll be glad to see a new first-time World Cup winner. The winner will also become the first European team to win on non-European soil, though a Holland win would come on soil with colonial links to the Dutch (Frank and Ronald de Boer no longer play for Holland, but Frank is an assistant coach).
JOHN adds: Paul, I’ve read your soccer posts with wide-eyed admiration. Half the time I have no idea what you’re talking about. However, given the sickening and unexpected collapse of the Minnesota Twins, I may become a soccer fan for the rest of the summer.
PAUL responds: Great. No need to miss a beat when the World Cup ends tomorrow because Everton has already commenced its pre-season. Today, looking pretty in pink, we defeated Sydney FC 1-0 in front of 40,000 soccer-mad Aussies.
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