The Final Countdown
La Rioja has matured just in time! having uncorked a vintage performance in the semi final, Spain must defy history in the final.
No country in a World Cup Finals has lost their opening game and won the cup. Since losing to Switzerland , the European champions and pre- tournament favourites have been living on the edge, another defeat and they would have been eliminated, which may explain why they have produced subdued, inhibited performances so far in the competition, at least until they defeated Germany in Wednesday's semi final.
The Germans had been the best team in the tournament up until then , defying their critics with uncharacteristically bold and exciting performances, but against the Spaniards, they retreated to the safety of their traditionally cautious mindset, just as Prince Prospero, in Poe's Gothic masterpiece , "The Masque of the Red Death" , hides in his abbey as a plague sweeps over the land. Poe describes the pestilence as causing " sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores leading to death within half an hour." Vincente Del Bosque's " red fury" swarmed all over the much vaunted German midfield , draining them of energy and confidence , the coup de grace coming in the seventy second minute.
Having defeated the Germans in the European Championship final two years ago, Joachim Loew's side held no fears for the Spaniards and they were able to play their normal passing game against a side who were trying to win the match, unlike their opponents in the previous rounds, Portugal and Paraguay, who erected nine man barriers in front of them and challenged " La Furio Roja" to breach them.
For the first time in the tournament Xavi Hernandez , Xabi Alonso and Andries Iniesta were able to take control of a game and dictate its pace. Although they too often indulged in their favourite pastime , over elaborate passing , they were a joy to watch , especially in the second half when they were dominant and the Germans could not muster a response.
This is the Spain we had looked forward to seeing at these finals. On their day, they are the best team in the world , exhilarating to watch , football as an art form , words that used to describe the Dutch , the team Spain will meet in the final.
But the Holland of 2010 is a very different animal , happy to play on the break and with two rugged central midfielders in De Jong and van Bommel who will aim to disrupt the smooth running Spanish engine room. The onus will be on Spain to take the game to the Dutch, a scenario in which they have struggled previously. The Achilles heel is their predictability, everyone knows how Spain will play, whereas the Dutch have the ability and personnel to mix up their tactics .
If Spain are finally to fulfil their potential in a Word Cup, they must slow the game down to their pace and deny the Dutch possession by pressing them high up the pitch, thereby isolating the dangerous Arjen Robben. If they allow the Dutch to frustrate them and knock them off their stride then it will be those other perennial underachievers, Holland whose celebrations will drown out Spanish sighs.
However , Spain will probably never have a better chance of returning home from the new world as their forefathers once did, laden with gold. If their big players perform, if they are able to play their own game and score first, then champagne corks may well popping not rioja!
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