U.S. Under-20 national team coach Thomas Rongen continues his periodic analysis on the European Championship. Rongen is a former Dutch national-team player and veteran of the NASL. He made his name in America with head coaching gigs with four Major League Soccer franchises.
I can't wait for Sunday, which will end up being an ABC doubleheader of the Euro final, preceded by the Los Angeles Galaxy vs. D.C. United, two of the most attack-minded teams in MLS -- but that's another column. Spain vs. Germany is a contrast in styles, players of skill and coaching moves. It's tempting to go with Spain, which looks like the team of destiny, but you can't overlook Germany, an experienced team that knows how to do the little things to grind out a win. Here's how I see the final breaking out:
It's funny, because it was basically a forced coaching move that allowed Spain to play some of its best soccer. With the tournament's leading scorer, DavidVilla, out injured, Luis Aragonés was forced to add Cesc Fàbregas to the mix. Fàbregas isn't a striker like Villa, so that puts five midfielders on the pitch and shifts the formation from a traditional 4-4-2 to a 4-5-1. With DavidSilva, Xavi, Marcos Senna, Fàbregas and Andrés Iniesta operating out of the midfield, that gives Spain far more versatility, plays to its strengths and makes it a better team. They attack with quality and will create big problems for Germany's back four.
Similar to Spain, German coach Joachim Löw was also forced to shift into a 4-5-1 after his 4-4-2 wasn't working earlier in the tournament. That frees up Miroslav Klose to be the lone striker and puts Lukas Podolski and BastianSchweinsteiger on the wings, which is a dangerous combination. Behind them is Michael Ballack, who has been the heart and soul of this German team. This squad has the ability to sit back and absorb pressure, almost like Italy, and then wait for an opportunity to break with numbers. In a close game, from a mental standpoint, you can't compete with Germany. They can come back and win in any scenario.
With space in the middle of the field at a premium, I think this game will be won on the outside, where the fullbacks will try to negate the wingers, and vice versa. Pay attention to how Sergio Ramos does matched up against Podolski. Ramos is a superb attacking fullback and can take advantage. On the other side, it's Schweinsteiger vs. Joan Capdevila, which is another nice matchup. But to me, the most intriguing one-on-one matchup is Ballack vs. Senna in a battle of central midfielders. If Senna -- who has been perhaps Spain's most important player -- can win that matchup, you negate Ballack's offensive contributions and cut him off from Podolski and Schweinsteiger.
I'm sticking with Ballack. He has been superb. His willingness to sacrifice on the defensive side of the ball has been the biggest sign of being a leader -- he does whatever he has to do to ensure this team wins. Meanwhile, he's also been involved in the biggest plays that have led to Germany's most important goals. While his play hasn't been flashy like Spain's Villa, the Netherlands' Arjen Robben or Russia's Andrei Arshavin, Ballack's performances will be remembered when we talk about these Euros years from now.
Without a doubt, yes -- if for nothing else than the fact that we've seen incredible attacking soccer all tournament long. In big tournaments like these, the successful teams often take the cynical approach -- they play to not lose the game. Greece was the best example of this in Euro 2004. But this time, all of the good teams have played to win.
There have been fantastic attacking sequences that have involved a good deal of risk from the teams' respective coaches. There have been some thrilling goals that have showed off individual talent. The defensive teams at these Euros -- France, Greece and Italy -- were punished for playing that way. It's a sign that the prettiest soccer can often be the most successful soccer. From a fan's perspective, you can't ask for more.