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Dutch will prove powerless to stop Spanish surge


Spain’s David Villa (above) and the Netherlands’ Wesley Sneijder are both in line to challenge for the coveted Golden Boot award. AFP

Come Monday morning a new name will join the list of winners of the World Cup. Either Spain or the Netherlands will become the eighth member of world sport’s most exclusive club, leaving the other consigned to the ranks of football’s nearly men.

In winning Euro 2008, Spain notched up their first major senior title since 1964. Now they are in danger of becoming serial winners, and in the process becoming only the third team, after West Germany and France, to be reigning champions of both Europe and the World.

From crashing out 3-1 to France in the last-16 round of the 2006 World Cup, Spain’s progress has been momentous.

Whereas the Dutch have jettisoned their brand of “total football” to reach this year’s final, the Spanish have created a brand all of their own. Dubbed “ticky tacky” due to its reliance upon short, swift passing, Spain’s approach is to starve opponents of the ball.

In the second semifinal, the Germans sat too deep, relying upon the speed of their counterattack to penetrate the Spanish back line. This allowed Spain to dictate the pace of the game. It was only when they went a goal behind that the Germans started to take the game to their opponents and looked like scoring. But the Spanish always seemed more likely to add a second.

Ironically, the style of Spain’s winner against Germany could not have been in starker contrast with their overall play. A long corner into the German box, met by a bullet header from Carles Puyol, left Manuel Neuer helpless in the German goal.

What are the Netherlands’ chances of accomplishing what Germany could not?

The signs are not good. Deprived of the ball for long periods in the first half of their quarterfinal with Brazil, the Dutch looked ordinary. It took a freakish equaliser to stir them into action, by which time the tie would have been all but over if the Brazilians had been more clinical with their finishing. And the Spanish keep the ball better than the Brazilians.

I doubt that Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong will win their midfield battle with Sergio Busquets, Xabier Alonso and Xavi. With Wesley Sneijder, Dirk Kuyt and Arjen Robben forced deeper and deeper, Robin van Persie will be left isolated up front.

Just like the Germans, the Dutch might be forced to rely on the pace of their counter-attack. In Robben they have a winger with sufficient speed and skill to worry either Spanish full-back, as well as the seemingly unstoppable Sneijder. Whether van Persie will make the Spanish pay for defensive lapses is open to debate.

Before the start of the tournament, I predicted that Spain would win, albeit beating Brazil in the final, and that David Villa would carry off the Golden Boot as the tournament’s top scorer. I see no reason to change these predictions now, though I doubt it will need a Puyol header for Spain to become the eighth country etched their name on the World Cup.

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