When the Netherlands and Spain take to the field for Sunday's World Cup final, a win for either will put a new name on the trophy; neither has succeeded in claiming soccer's world crown before. With only two defeats since November 2006, Spain is the bookmakers' favorite, though the Dutch have gone unbeaten throughout qualifying and at the finals. Spain was beaten by Switzerland in its opening match, and has been criticized for lacking a Plan B to back up its sumptuous, but sometimes fruitless, passing soccer. The Netherlands has reached the final despite being one of the least entertaining sides to watch, but won't care a jot if it wins it the trophy. So how do these two teams match up on the pitch?
Iker Casillas is rightly considered one of the best goalkeepers in the world but, despite having conceded three goals less than his Dutch counterpart (2:5), has not looked leagues ahead of Maarten Stekelenburg. Both keepers have shown a tendency to punch rather than catch, which has resulted in a few undignified flaps, but both have kept their sides in crucial matches.
The Dutch keeper has made a series of fingertip saves -- from Miroslav Stoch and Robert Vittek as Slovakia chased an equalizer in the round of 16, and from Kaka and Maicon in the quarterfinal defeat of Brazil -- to help the Netherlands through to the final. Though he looked less certain against Uruguay, his command of the penalty area has generally been assured.
Casillas started his tournament with a moment of madness against Switzerland and made some faltering forays off his line against Honduras, but his stock has been restored as the tournament has gone on, saving a penalty against Paraguay and showing well-oiled reflexes in keeping decent efforts from Piotr Trochowski and Toni Kroos out against Germany. All three saves came with the score at 0-0 to prevent Spain having to chase a lead in the knockout stages.
Who has the edge? If the game is tight on Sunday, Casillas' reliability at spot-kicks could be vital to Spain, as Stekelenburg has already been beaten by penalties from Cameroon and Slovakia.
Man for man, the Spanish defense enjoys a number of advantages, being speedier than the Dutch back-four, committing fewer fouls and generally being more reliable passers of the ball. Though the odd gap does open up between them, not least against Switzerland, the central defensive partnership between Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique, Barcelona teammates, is incredibly strong.
The pacier, more skilful Pique handled the threat from Chile's Alexis Sanchez and Jean Beausejour well, and has a habit of making crucial interventions. Puyol, 32, may be slower but he quietly goes about the business of mopping up anything that isn't cut out ahead of him. Though he tends to look for a simple pass to his fellow defenders more often than Pique does, both frequently feed the ball forward as a way out of defensive spots.
In Sergio Ramos and Joan Capdevila, Vicente del Bosque can field two zippy fullbacks who bolster attacking moves and add width to a side that doesn't often play with genuine wingers -- Capdevila's link-up play with Alonso has been noticeable. Both can cross the ball well, though they are among Spain's tallest players, so if Fernando Torres is not playing, that supply line can be wasted. The biggest worry for Spain will be getting these two back to cover a Dutch break, especially since Capdevila can sometimes lash out and his opponent will be the tumbling Arjen Robben.
The Netherlands defense is a compact unit that keeps things simple -- until the semifinal meeting with Uruguay, it had looked supremely comfortable. Even then, Joris Mathijsen coped pretty well with the shortfall in pace on Edinson Cavani, and Giovanni van Bronckhorst got back to make a goalline clearance when all else failed. Though they're not the tallest defenders on the planet, Mathijsen and fellow centre half Johnny Heitinga deal unfussily with aerial balls, and they'll enjoy a significant height advantage over the Spanish team.
In possession, the Dutch defense doesn't have quite the lust for getting forward that the Spanish show, generally opting for straightforward, short balls out to the fullbacks or up to Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong. When Gregory van der Wiel has gone forward, he's not tended to be an effective operator, but van Bronckhorst's interchanges with Dirk Kuyt and Wesley Sneijder have been useful in launching the Netherlands forwards, and he scored an absolute belter against Uruguay.
Who has the edge? Both defenses have had their moments of chaos amidst generally disciplined campaigns, but the Spanish back line looks a better match for the Dutch threat than vice versa.
Both Spain and the Netherlands play their best soccer with a midfield five, or rather, a two and a three: two holding, defensive midfielders shielding the back line, and three forward-thinking players in front of them. In possession, the two widest players generally join the front line, relying on the brains and execution of the central attacking midfielder to supply them.
For Spain, Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets sit at the back of the midfield, positions occupied by Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong for the Netherlands. There's little doubt which is the more destructive of the two units: barely venturing over the halfway line, the Dutch duo prowl the space in front of their defense like guard dogs, daring attackers to try their luck. By contrast, the Spaniards buzz around like compulsive cleaners, wearing a quizzical look that suggests they're thinking "Hang on a moment, what's that doing there?" Where the Dutch tend to dismantle, the Spanish turnover possession; Alonso has made more possession gaining tackles than any other player to have featured in six matches.
The beneficiary tends to be Xavi, the creative midfield axis in coach Vincent del Bosque's line-up. Moving around one another at instantaneously choreographed angles, he, Alonso and Busquets have played more passes than anyone else in South Africa, and with greater accuracy. Once the ball is in their possession, it is incredibly hard to wrest it from them without conceding a free kick. And as well as spraying passes about the pitch like a tennis gun, Xavi can travel with the ball.
The Netherlands midfield is hardly careless with the ball, however, and the well-timed bursts of speed that van Bommel (going backwards) and Sneijder (going forwards), Xavi's counterpart, have shown could prove useful. Though Sneijder has been forced to play reasonably conservatively at times, his ability to find Kuyt, Arjen Robben or Robin van Persie and make himself available for the return makes him a danger. That his Internazionale side outfoxed Xavi's Barcelona in the Champions League final will help build confidence.
Kuyt and Robben's contributions will be crucial for the Netherlands as there is space to be exploited outside of the Spanish midfield. Pedro gives Spain more width than Andres Iniesta, the other man likely to flank Xavi on Sunday, but neither hugs the line as tightly as the Dutchmen do. Kuyt and Robben's greater pace will only make a difference, however, if they can match the Spaniards for end product.
Who has the edge? The fight in midfield will be the closest of all, and there won't be huge amounts of space in which to do battle. Spain passes the ball through this area the better, but the Netherlands has the personnel to disrupt that flow and create moments of its own.
That leaves one man to consider for both teams, though neither van Persie nor David Villa is ideally a lone striker. The Arsenal man hasn't really been firing for the Netherlands, but has shown glimpses of the intelligent play around the box that we expected, if not the goals -- he might have had a handful of assists against Uruguay alone.
Villa has looked more dangerous playing somewhere to the left of Fernando Torres than in the solo role he took on versus Germany but he found plenty of space despite the Germans' defensive approach to the semifinal. Twice the Barcelona-bound striker was inches away from scoring, and he kept Arne Friedrich's brain working at 200% right up until being substituted with 10 minutes to play.
Who has the edge? Villa has five goals in six matches and has put more shots in target than anyone else in South Africa.
Bert van Marwijk enjoyed success in two spells as Feyenoord coach, winning the UEFA Cup (now the Europa League) in 2002 and the 2008 KNVB Cup on his return after a less successful time of it at Borussia Dortmund. He replaced Marco van Basten as the Netherlands coach after Euro 2008, and has lost only one match as the national team manager, a friendly against Australia shortly after taking charge.
Vicente del Bosque also picked up the reins after Euro 2008, having turned down the Spain job in 2004 and the chance to coach Mexico in 2006. Del Bosque oversaw one of the most successful periods in Real Madrid's recent history, winning two Champions League titles and two La Liga titles amongst a few other cups.
Who has the edge? The Dutch have won an impressive 73 percent of their games since van Marwijk took over, but Real's loss has been Spain's gain: Del Bosque has a 93 percent win rate as national coach. Although, it's worth nothing that since November 2006, Spain has lost only two games, both of which were under Del Bosque.
The Dutch want to lay to rest the ghosts of the 1970s, when they reached two consecutive World Cup finals and came home on both occasions empty-handed, but on paper, Spain is better virtually everywhere on the pitch, and has so dominated possession of the ball so far that it is hard to envisage the Netherlands being able to disrupt that for long. But soccer isn't played on paper, and the resilience of the central defensive four for the Netherlands (Heitinga, Mathijsen, van Bommel and de Jong) may prove another stern test for the Spanish. So far this tournament has proved largely immune to prediction, so no one is writing off an upset just yet.