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Saturday, July 10, 2010
WORLD CUP: Sunday's championship preview

By Scott French

NETHERLANDS VS. SPAIN11:30 a.m. PT. Where: Soccer City (Johannesburg/Soweto)


When:

TV: ABC (KABC/Channel 7), ESPN Deportes and Univision (KMEX/Channel 34); TeleFutura (KFTR/Channel 46), delayed, 7 p.m.; ESPN2, delayed, 11 p.m.; ESPN Classic, delayed, 4:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. (Monday)


Referee: Howard Webb (England)


Players to watch: The final likely will be determined by the battle in midfield, with Spain's Xavi and Andres Iniesta, the protagonists in Spain's mesmerizing possession game, against Holland's Mark van Bommel, a master destroyer who must be at his best if the Dutch are to succeed. David Villa, of course, is Spain's deadliest finisher, and he's squaring off the Dutch playmaker Wesley Sneijder for the Golden Boot award. Sneijder and winger Arjen Robben are Holland's special players, capable of making something from nothing. If Spain's defensive approach can eliminate space as it did in the semifinal win over Germany, this could be a long day for Holland.


The scoop: The Netherlands has been waiting for this day since 1978, when Rob Rensenbrink's shot at the close of regulation caromed off the post. The Oranje was an inch from the title but fell to Argentina in overtime.

Spain has never gotten this far, never been close, but La Furia Roja's reputation for underachievement was done away with at the European Championship two years ago. Playing a startling brand of possession soccer that relied on intricate passing patterns and constant interchange of position -- a modern version, perhaps, of the “Total Football” with which the Dutch charmed the world 30 years earlier -- the Spaniards romped to a most deserved title.

This World Cup campaign is a continuation of that, although it's been a rockier trek. Fernando Torres' form, following injury, has impacted Spain's finishing, and there was that shock loss to Switzerland in the opener, but aside from that, there's been no side more dominant in this tournament. They've held possession about two-thirds of every game, with Xavi and Iniesta at the controls of a pass-happy attack that has relied on Villa for the goals. And Spain has conceded just twice; few teams can match the defensive personnel: Iker Casillas is in the first tier of goalkeepers, and there may be no better center back than Gerard Pique.

Coach Vicente Del Bosque's big quandary: Does Torres return to the starting lineup, or is it Pedro again? Or does Cesc Fabregas get a go?

Holland could become just the fifth team to make a perfect run through the World Cup, joining Uruguay (4-0 in 1930), Italy (4-0 in 1938) and Brazil (6-0 in 1970 and 7-0 in 2002). They've been the better side, as expected, against mostly inferior opposition, then outsmarted Brazil in a tense quarterfinal and held off game Uguguay to reach the title game. Sneijder, who like Villa has five goals, has been sensational; so has Robben, whose runs on the right flank and forays into the middle to unleash his magical left foot have been nearly unstoppable.

Robin van Persie seems to have found some semblance of his best form after his own injury problems, and Dirk Kuyt's work from the left flank has been invaluable. Van Bommel and Nigel De Jong, who missed the semifinal through suspension, have provided a fine foundation, and how well they operate under Spain's offensive pressure is key. The Oranje's back line is nothing special, although Gregory van der Wiel's return from suspension helps, but there's quality on the bench -- especially Rafael van der Vaart and Eljero Elia -- and an extra day's rest will be an advantage.

History: Spain is the 12th nation to play in a World Cup final and the first first-timer since France won at home in 1998. Five other first-time finalists have captured the trophy, and three of them -- Uruguay in 1930, Italy in 1934 and England in 1966 -- were on home turf. The others: giants West Germany (in 1954) and Brazil (in 1958; the 1950 “final” wasn't actually a final). It's usually the same sides over and over, so no surprise that since Holland made its title-game debut, in a loss 36 years ago to Germany in Munich, Spain is just the second debutant to take the field. Following France.

Paul the Oracle Octopus' pick: Spain

Prediction: Spain 3, Netherlands 1

Potential lineups
Netherlands: 1-Maarten Stekelenburg; 2-Gregory van der Wiel, 3-John Heitinga, 4-Joris Mathijsen, 5-Giovanni van Bronckhorst; 6-Mark van Bommel, 8-Nigel de Jong; 11-Arjen Robben, 10-Wesley Sneijder, 7-Dirk Kuyt; 9-Robin van Persie.

Spain: 1-Iker Casillas; 15-Sergio Ramos, 3-Gerard Pique, 5-Carles Puyol, 11-Joan Capdevila; 14-Xabi Alonso, 16-Sergio Busquets; 6-Andres Iniesta, 8-Xavi, 7-David Villa; 9-Fernando Torres.