JOHANNESBURG — It’s here: The World Cup final. Spain-Netherlands. One of the world’s great soccer nations will win the trophy for the first time. Five things to watch for on Sunday (2:30 p.m. ET, ABC, Univisión):
• Can Spain do the double? Only two other nations have held the World Cup and European Championship trophies at the same time: West Germany (1972 Euro/’74 World Cup) and France (’98 World Cup/2000 Euro). Spain now has a chance to join them in the history books as one of the dominant national teams of any generation. This World Cup has been harder for Spain than the ’08 Euro was, however. The Spanish lost their first game, a 1-0 stunner to Switzerland. Their biggest star, Fernando Torres, has been ineffective all tournament long (zero goals) and got benched for the semifinals. And no team has ever scored fewer goals to reach the World Cup final. Yet Spain has persevered, gotten better as the tournament has gone along and will be the favorite to win on Sunday and make history.
• Can Wesley Sneijder make the most of his moments? You might recall that Sneijder’s Inter Milan won the Champions League this year and along the way took out a Barcelona team that dominated ball possession. Spain plays a lot like Barcelona, of course (with many of the same players), and now it will be on Sneijder again to take advantage of the few chances the Netherlands are expected to get in their attacking end. If the Dutch win this game and Sneijder plays well, it will be hard to argue against him winning not just the Golden Ball (as the best player of the World Cup) but also the FIFA World Player of the Year award in December. Lionel Messi was outstanding for Barcelona last season (and played well for Argentina here), but Sneijder has a chance to win the Champions League crown and the World Cup as the best player on both of those teams.
• Will Spain’s possession create enough scoring chances? Led by Xavi and Andrés Iniesta, the Spanish midfield was brilliant in their 1-0 semifinal win over Germany, stringing passes together against one of the world’s best teams as though it were easy. (Hint: It’s not.) Yet for much of the game all that possession was unable to yield many actual scoring chances. David Villa, in particular, struggled to find many open spaces against a German defense that was packed in tight. The Dutch back line isn’t as good as Germany’s, so Villa should be able to get free more often. But keep an eye on the Netherlands’ two defensive midfielders, Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong, who have been in full destroyer mode during this World Cup. (Van Bommel has shown an impressive ability to avoid yellow and red cards despite deserving them on a few occasions.) Will they be able to throw Xavi and Iniesta and crew off their game?
• Can Arjen Robben change the game? The most intriguing player on the field may well be Robben, the electric Dutch winger who is so adept at cutting to the inside from the right and unleashing deadly shots from distance on his left foot. Look for Robben to switch sides with Dirk Kuyt even more than usual on Sunday, however: Deployed on the left, Robben might be able to pin back Spanish right back Sergio Ramos and prevent him from making many forays upfield. (Spanish left back Joan Capdevila ventures upfield far less often than does Ramos.) In a World Cup that has seen team play triumph over individual superstars, Robben is one individualist who could change the equation on Sunday.
• Will we see Fernando Torres back in the starting lineup? I doubt it. In both Euro 2008 and in World Cup 2010 Spain just seems like a more threatening team when it’s only using one forward and allows itself to have five midfielders who can control possession. Villa is clearly in much better form than Torres right now, and the introduction of Pedro in the semifinal for Torres paid off when Pedro was dangerous for much of the game. Will it be Pedro again on Sunday? Perhaps, but we might also see the return of David Silva to the lineup. (It must be nice if you’re coach Vicente del Bosque to have so much talent that you can leave Cesc Fabregas on the bench to start.) Keep this in the back of your mind, though: If Spain needs a late goal, Torres will likely come off the bench and could provide one. Even though he’s not in great form, Torres is a fighter who could still have a big influence on Sunday’s final.
What’s on your mind about Sunday’s game? Who do you like? (My prediction: Spain 2, Netherlands 1.)