Thirty two nations came to South Africa a month ago for the World Cup finals. Now only two remain in contention for the ultimate prize – a trophy that neither has won before.
Spain will play in their first World Cup Final tonight in Johannesburg. For Holland it will be their third, following defeats to West Germany in 1974 and Argentina in 1978.
But which of these European nations will be celebrating under African skies come the end of this evening’s final? There is no history to consider: surprisingly these two European powerhouses have never met in a major competition.
Both teams go into the final in good form. Spain have won 50 of their last 54 matches while Holland are on a 25 game unbeaten run. The Dutch have not lost a single game through either the qualifying competition or the finals themselves.
Spain will in all likelihood go with the same starting line up that beat Germany 1 – 0 in the semi-final. And that means Fernando Torres will be left on the bench, while 22 year old Pedro starts. Spain have a solid defence, an inventive midfield and the deadly David Villa up front.
Holland are likely to make two changes, with right back Gregory van der Wiel and defensive midfielder Nigel de Jong both available after suspensions.
This is not the total football side of the Dutch in the 1970s but they are a very efficient and effective team. They may not have the best defenders but they do have talented players in midfield, with Wesley Sneijder a contender for player of the tournament.
I would love to think that tonight’s final will be a feast of football, a thrilling game full of inventive attacking football and plenty of goals. But I feel it will become more of a tactical battle, similar to Spain’s semi-final win over Germany.
We all know how the Spanish will play. They will keep the ball as much as possible and use the type of short passing game they love. Xabi and Iniesta will probe for the openings and look to create chances for David Villa.
And the Dutch will try to stop them playing. The physical Marc Van Bommel and Nigel De Jong will try to spoil the Spanish plan by whatever means necessary. And if they can win the ball back they will look to Sneijder and Arjen Robben who both have pace on the break.
A word on the referee. Unless you have somehow managed to avoid every television and sports page over the past few days, you will know that the man in charge will be England’s Howard Webb. He will want as smooth a game as possible and to be out of the limelight. But Webb has a responsibility to impose his authority in the early stages of the match so that the footballers are allowed to play.
So can the Spanish become only the second reigning European Champions to go on to win the World Cup? Or will the Dutch finally win the trophy for the first time?
I think Spain will come out on top in a game that will be absorbing rather than entertaining.
1 – 0 to Spain is my prediction for the match. And it just has to be David Villa to grab the winning goal and claim the title of top scorer in the tournament.
Enjoy the game!