The semifinals of the World Cup are a rare and strange mix of art, circumstance, and tense interaction formed around the 4 teams lucky enough to be involved. Thankfully, this version saw two very exciting games, although they were exciting for very different reasons. The comparisons in style of play alone were staggering enough with neo-Total Football (which should more accurately be called a shell of its former self, having its spirit moved down to Barcelona and its corpse left rotting in a ditch behind Cruyff’s house — i.e., they have become boring and predictable, but football monikers hang around for a long time) facing off against Uruguay relying almost totally on Diego Forlan and cutting runs with little ability to adequately possess and the “youthful exuberance” of the “new” Germany opposing tiki-taka, Barca lite Spain. Two past champions attempting to regain the form of years gone by opposing the two best sides to have never won the Cup. It doesn’t get much better.
Uruguay v. Netherlands: Uruguay, for all intents and purposes are this year’s South Korea. A tiny nation making it all the way to the semis with some luck, a very favorable draw, and a couple of bright shining stars. They should also be given credit, however, for winning the games they had to and gritting it out when things were tough. Holland, on the other hand, are, and have been, a top 3 team in the world since Euro 2008. A bunch of superstar attackers buoyed by former (or upcoming) greats in the back and a surprisingly good goalkeeper (the best so far outside of the horrendous mistake in this match). Two styles that both makes for frenetic action as both sides are wont to make horrible defensive lapses and equally likely to put it in on the counter.
The game did not start out as tentative as most semifinals do. The Oranje controlled much of the possession but this was broken up by constant forays forward from Caceres (who apparently is still alive) and Maxi Pereira feeding to Forlan up front. Uruguay showed some danger up front in the first but the eventual breakthrough came from van Bronckhorst, a once and former blaugrana defender, releasing a rocket from the left and hitting the upper 90 right in a definite candidate for goal of the games. After that, possession swung wildly between the two sides before an equalizer came off the foot of Forlan, fooling Stekelenburg and making this a game again. The remainder of the first half showed Holland shell-shocked from the goal and Uruguay unable to capitalize.
In the second however, this one turned into the Oranje show, as it has all tournament. Sure Forlan nearly gave the baby blues the lead with a curling freekick, but the Dutch were far more dangerous all across the pitch, if only because the Uruguyan defense turned into a tentative and scared bunch around the 46th.. Eventually the pressure wore the Uruguayans down and 2 goals in 3 minutes from Sneijder and Robben looked to have sealed this one, and the removal of Forlan shortly thereafter seemed the final nail in the coffin. But the Ghost of Suarez reared his head and determined to make this a game again with multiple (missed) opportunities in the waning minutes for the Uruguyans, culminating in a goal for Periera on a nice strike and Van Bommel’s first yellow card (somehow it took him 6 games to get one) of the tournament for premature celebration when he thought the game was over. Eventually chances were squandered and this game died the way it came on, in confusing and exciting fashion.
The Netherlands, it must be said, have done an impeccable job of holding off just as much firepower as they can while getting lucky enough, or simply being better, to hold on for wins. Pundits may love Sneijder (and rightly so) and they may talk about VDV and van Persie more, but without Robben, this team is a shell of what it might be. Robben’s inside cuts from the right are deadly and keep many defenses from collapsing onto Sneijder. Van Persie has been known to take up space, but much like Fernando Torres, he has provided so little offensively, he’s almost a nuisance at times. But complain as I might about the lack of precision passing, movement, depth, touch, or overall prowess, the Netherlands are the only undefeated side left in the tournament (although New Zealand went our undefeated), and they have beat at least 2 good teams to get to the Finals, and deserve it more than maybe Spain or Germany.
Uruguay must “settle” for the Third-place match, but they should not get down on themselves. They went through an incredible run largely on the shoulders of Forlan and Suarez and should the overall importance of getting a favorable draw. A lively group that were in on nearly every super exciting moment and left an indelible impression on the Games. Uruguay 2, Netherlands 3
MOTM: Robben. I still believe that without him, this team is rudderless against good teams. He creates space for himself and gets where he needs to be.
Spain v. Germany: If the above game was show of madcap antics in the attacking third and defensive lapses abounding, this was, as Zonal Marking said, the most exciting 1-0 game you will ever find. Spain dominated but Germany found their chances, and well, FC Barcelona shined brighter than usual.
Die Mannschaft, 3-time champions and normally only described as stoic on offense and hard in defense have been a marauding and fun to watch force this tournament, scoring 14 goals in 5 games and dropping 4 on England and Argentina along the way. Conversely, La Furia Roja have played tight, possession-oriented, pressure-filled games throughout, really only dominating Honduras in any noticeable way. So of course the Germans are going to roll through Spain after wearing them down in the second half.
What followed should have been shocking to very few people as Spain was tactically superior on and off the ball, in defense and on the attack. A few statistics, again from our good friends at Zonal Marking as well as the New York Times Goal Blog: Xavi had 28 more touches than any other player, completed 20 more passes than any other player; Busquets completed 39 of 40 in the first half; Spain in general had 61% of possession. Pique and Puyol kept Klose in check, allowing him 1 measly shot that originally deflected off the head of Ramos and the Germans realistically only had one good shot, from Kroos directly at Casillas. Spain were dominant with only Alonso having a marginally bad game (and it wasn’t so bad, it just stood out around the others).
Pedro moved exquisitely off the ball, creating space, making runs, taking shots, passing and generally doing everything this Spanish team needs to do in order to win (his lack of a pass that would have sealed the game towards the end notwithstanding). He proved he belongs and should start again on Sunday. Of course we cannot forget Puyol who had an absolute monster game in the back after being abused by Cardozo last week. His goal of course was massive and an almost carbon copy of his goal at the Bernabeu in the 6-2 thrashing of Mardid 2 years ago. Casillas also came up big when he needed to and has looked very good after a very shaky outing against Switzerland. All in all, a dominant performance from Spain with some flashes from Germany.
However, we cannot forget the Germans. They played well on the counter, but it was not to be. They were tentative and made minimal efforts to actually take the ball and possession from the Spanish and even when they figured out the best way to take it from Iniesta was to foul him, they did a poor job. This was not all due to Germany though as this game was likely won by hard work in pressing in defense, especially from Capdevila, Pique, Puyol, and Busquets, allowing Ramos to run free. Germany was likely the best side in the tournament until this game, but going from playing sides with no defensive acumen to one with 3 world class defenders, a top 5 keeper, and some of the best pressing mids in the world is not a good recipe for these boys.
In the end we will have a new Cup winner, and it’s probably for the best, but we need it to be Spain. The strange ring of commentators calling Spain’s win “boring” came up after the game, and if that gameplan is boring, then I guess the only thing that is exciting now if counter-attacking, so shoot me. Spain play the game how it should be done and with 7 Barça players likely to start, it just keeps getting better. Playing the Netherlands may be a dream come true for some in Spain as it will be much easier for Spain to hold and keep possession for long periods of time against a dramatically smaller and less active Dutch defense. If the Oranje play a high line it could be over early, but if the pressure doesn’t come from Puyol and Pique, Robben will have a field day. Let’s hope it’s a good one for Barça because Spain go as the blaugrana do. Spain 1, Germany 0
MOTM: Xavi. His work rate and passing were phenomenal and he’s starting to make a case for inclusion in Player of the Tournament talks.
Spain v. Netherlands, July 11, 2:30 pm EST
Uruguay v. Germany, July 10, 2:30 pm EST
FC Barcelona Players in the Finals
Spain: V. Valdes, Busquets, David Villa, Iniesta, Xavi, Pedro, Puyol, Pique
Uruguay: M. Caceres (3rd Place Game)
Golden Boot Leaders (still active):
David Villa: 5
Wesley Sneijder: 5
Arjen Robben: 2
Golden Ball Candidates (my guess):
David Villa – Spain
Andres Iniesta – Spain
Xavi Hernandez – Spain
Wesley Sneijder – Netherlands
Arjen Robben – Netherlands
Bastian Sweinsteiger – Germany
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