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?
The Dutch keeper has made a series of fingertip saves -- from
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
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
The pacier, more skilful Pique handled the threat from Chile's
The Netherlands defense is a compact unit that keeps things simple -- until the semifinal meeting with Uruguay, it had looked supremely comfortable. Even then,
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
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.
The beneficiary tends to be
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,
Kuyt and Robben's contributions will be crucial for the Netherlands as there is space to be exploited outside of the Spanish midfield.
That leaves one man to consider for both teams, though neither van Persie nor
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
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.