Posted by: mdegeorge | July 12, 2010

Starting XI Points: World Cup Final

It wasn’t exactly the most aesthetically pleasing final ever; in fact, it was a downright grinder from time to time. But at the end, the better, and least violent, team emerged victorious. Here are my starting XI points from a less-than-classic World Cup Final.

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– They don’t always espouse the prettiest game of football, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a team more effective in the execution of their style. And that’s why they’re the world champions. When La Furia Roja dominated their way to the 2008 European Championship, the story of the tournament was the offensive fluidity and firepower they used to trounce their opponents. This time around, it was a stifling, possession-based offense that kept their opponents at bay even when their free-flowing offense faltered. If the trophy was given out for most entertaining squad, the Spaniards would have finished fourth among the semifinalists. But the trophy is given to the team best able to adhere to their game plan and for that, they are deserving champions.

– If there’s a role the Dutch can be pegged into in the world of soccer, it’s that of the perpetual bridesmaid. This team had a championship make-up. Perhaps most importantly, they were able to avoid the infighting and internal spats—save for the dispute between Robin van Persie and Bert van Marwijk over the Arsenal striker’s substitution against Slovakia—that so often drag down the Oranje squad in major tournaments. If there’s one aspect of this team that fault can be found with, it’s the strike force of essentially two players, the ever mercurial van Persie and Klaus Jan Huntelaar. Had van Marwijk the benefit of the in-form strike force (replete with players like Ruud van Nistelrooy and Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink), the result may have been different.– There’s not enough that could be said about Andres Iniesta’s goal. His first touch to control a tricky ball into him wasn’t perfect, but was enough to keep a shot at goal a possibility. His patience to wait for the ball to come down to the perfect height was exquisite. He squared his hips and fired it through Maarten Stekelenberg with a deft touch. For a cagey match not necessarily worth its billing, the finish on the game’s only goal certainly was.

– The Spanish style has illustrated the fine line between possession football and negative football. They are always going forward and probing patiently for an opening. But when the strike force is as inefficient as it has been in this tournament and the attacking moves so often go unfulfilled, the possession Spain enjoys tends to stifle the game’s creativity. They managed just eight goals in seven matches, a far cry from the 12 times they found the back of the net in their Euro 2008 triumph, including eight in the three group games alone. They weren’t the most entertaining squad ever, but they are the first team to ever win the World Cup after losing their opening game.

– Speaking of borderline negative football, there was no reason for the Dutch to be so belligerent today. Nine of the Netherlands’ players entered referee Howard Webb’s book today out of 14 total cards shown, and that was a generous total based on how they played. Were it not for the magnitude of the game, Nigel de Jong easily could have been sent off for his karate kick to the chest of Xabi Alonso in the first half. Joris Mathijsen easily could have seen red for his tirade after the goal, as could Arjen Robben both for his tantrum near the end of regulation (and for other transgressions). It looked like early on they decided that since they couldn’t catch Spanish ball handlers, they would just plow them over as soon as they got close to them. It certainly didn’t pay off, and caught up to them when Johnny Heitinga was rightfully dismissed for pulling down Iniesta.

– For all the fanfare about the final game in Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s storied career, he was lost on several occasions. On the late chance by Cesc Fabregas in the first half of extra time in which he had the crucial final touch to put Fabregas off, the only reason Fabregas was allowed in was that van Bronckhorst was five yards off the back line to play him onside. It was one of several instances late in the game in which van Bronckhorst wasn’t in sync with the rest of the defense, and was why he came off so early.

– Is there anyone who feels more culpable for this loss than Robben? He got schooled twice by former teammate Iker Casillas in one-v-one situations that the Dutch hitman usually feasts upon. He then responded by several errant, desperate attempts at goal from distance late on, and was downright petulant in the latter stages of the game. His kicking of the ball behind Casillas after another run in at goal that was called offside could very well have earned him a second yellow were it not for some restraint from Webb.

– It seems almost counterintuitive to laud a referee in a game in which 14 yellow cards were handed out, but Webb did an excellent job of controlling the pace of a “pig of a game” in the words of Alexei Lalas. He made it known early and often that he wouldn’t tolerate any shenanigans and evenly punished those who decided to disobey. With the pressure of the game, it looked like neither side was interested in complying, and Webb showed tolerance as long as he could before having to severely penalize the Dutch for one offense too far. He may have missed the phantom foul on Edson Braafheid that preceded the goal, but that missed call had nowhere near as much impact in causing the Iniesta goal as the Dutch dissenters would have you believe.

– It didn’t come to pass, but there has to be questions asked about the subs. The Dutch clearly weren’t playing for penalties by withdrawing van Bronckhorst for Braafheid, which seemed a bit of a puzzling choice at that juncture. The introduction of Jesus Navas for an ineffective Pedro made sense, as did the introduction of an energetic Fabregas for a pedestrian Xabi Alonso. But taking off David Villa for the serially misfiring Fernando Torres was a decision that would have bit Vicente Del Bosque had the game gone to penalties, as the Liverpool striker was the prime candidate for penalty hoodoo.

– Kudos must also go to the goaltenders. Iker Casillas came up big on several occasions, most notably against Robben, while Stekelenberg was one of only a handful of Dutch players deserving a better fate. He got a hand to the Iniesta goal, and was unfortunate not to be able to keep it out.

– Chalk up another one for Paul the psychic octopus. The clairvoyant cephalopod has correctly predicted each of the last eight World Cup games. If only he could have predicted that Paul is kind of a lame name for an “oracle octopus”.

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