Friday, July 9, 2010

The Final

While I am delighted that Spain and Holland are in the final, I'm personally a bit conflicted about who to support.

On the one hand, for familial reasons, I'm for Spain. My wife's parents -- now naturalized US citizens -- came to the US from Spain in the early '60s. My son is a big Spain supporter. I've heard so many stories about Spanish football in the '50's from my father-in-law, and we watch a lot of Barcelona and Real Madrid during the club season together. I'm going to Spain in a couple of weeks to visit the family, and it would be great if they were riding the euphoria of winning the Cup.

[Just an aside -- I was visiting the family in Tenerife in the spring of 1993. That year, Real Madrid and Barcelona were coming into the last day of the La Liga season positioned 1-2 in the table, Real Madrid 2 points ahead of Barca. Real Madrid played Tenerife away; I can't recall who Barca played. I couldn't go to the match, but I listened on the radio out on the balcony of my apartment. Tenerife surprised Madrid 2-0, denying them the title (Barcelona won their match), and further, the three points for Tenerife put them in the UEFA Cup, just pipping Athletico Madrid by a point for fifth place. It was pandemonium. The whole city exploded. They were fishing people out of fountains in Tenerife for days. Unforgettable. I went to Game 7 of the NBA Finals at the Staples Center in LA a couple of weeks ago, and was out on the streets of downtown LA after the Lakers won the title, and it didn't hold a candle to the celebration in this small, provincial town when their long-suffering team came in fifth place in La Liga.]

I picked Holland to make the final, and I have a soft spot for their swashbuckling football history. They should have won a title during the Cruyff years. They had an undefeated run through 2010 qualifying, and an undefeated run through this World Cup. I watch a lot of English football, and so I've seen a lot of Holland's World Cup squad play in England -- Van Persie at Arsenal, Kuyt at Liverpool, Robben formerly at Chelsea, Heitinga at Everton, De Jong at Man City.

Ironically, modern Spain are playing like the historical Dutch, and for good reasons. Johann Cruyff came to Barcelona as coach and implemented Dutch total football tactics, which persist today. The current Spain team is dominated by Barcelona players: Pique, Puyol, Iniesta, Xavi, Busquests, Pedro, and even new signing Villa. I've heard people joke that Barcelona are going to win the World Cup. Spain are the spiritual successors to the 70's Dutch style that revolutionized football. The current Holland team, on the other hand, are almost playing like the Germans of old -- efficient, physical, individually talented.

What can we expect on Sunday? The pundits' consensus seems to be another 1-0 win for Spain. Spain getting 60% of the possession again, wearing down the Dutch back line with their sharp tiki-taka passing game, and scoring just one goal while clamping down a weak Dutch attack.

I'm not so sure, and it kind of depends on two thing: 1) will the Dutch play the same style or will they vary their tactics?; and 2) will there be an early goal?

You have to expect the first 20 minutes are going to be very cagey and tentative. These are both pretty patient teams. If the Dutch try to replicate the strategy of Switzerland, or Paraguay, or even Germany and hang back, conceding tons of possession to Spain, trying to steal a goal, Spain will indeed beat them 1-0 or 2-0. Holland have to create some high pressure on the Spanish midfield. Germany dropped back into their half too quickly against Spain, which allowed Busquets, Ramos, and even Pique to bring the ball forward, giving Xavi, Iniesta and Pedro time to find seams in the German midfield in threatening positions. This is suicide against Spain. If you give Xavi and Iniesta space to play around the top of the area, they will kill you.

I think the Dutch have to attack early to try to get an early goal to stretch the dense-packed Spanish midfield. An early Dutch goal will totally open this match up for the good. An early Spanish goal would also open up the match, but very much in Spain's favor. I think if Spain score in the first 20 minutes, this might look like France-Brazil '98.

The Dutch can score goals. They know how to play attacking football. They put in two against Brazil and played brightly. Put in three against Uruguay, one of which, the Van Bronckhorst strike, is a candidate for goal of the tournament. They have good attacking players. Van Persie has been absent, but Kuyt has been excellent, Robben has looked good, and Sneijder has poached a bunch of goals. However, you could have said the same thing about Germany, and Spain just shut the Germans down and toyed with them like a cat in their half of play.

They key for me is Dirk Kuyt on Holland's left vs. Sergio Ramos on Spain's right. If Kuyt has to play deep to counter Ramos, the Dutch attack will be neutered. If Kuyt pins Ramos back, it will be a much different match.

The World Cup final can often be pretty dull -- teams playing not to lose, rather than to win. In '90, '94, and '02 there were no first half goals in the final. In '98 the French scored two and won 3-0 (three goals is the most scored in a final in the last five cups). In '06, it was 1-1 at the half, but there were no second half goals. This one looks like it's either going to be a super-tight 1-0 victory by Spain, or a wide open 3-2 match that either team could win. God, I hope it's the latter.


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I couldn't agree with your review of the final more.

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