The final is Spain's to lose

GARETH WHEELER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 5:01 PM ET

JOHANNESBURG - Spain will win this year's World Cup.

I actually say that with some confidence. Predictions are obviously not my thing, as you can tell by my porous World Cup predictions record. But the way I look at it, during the group stage a 33% accuracy rate is a good thing, taking into consideration ties.

But over the course of the knockout stages, I've been pretty bang-on with my picks. Yes, I'm still shocked The Netherlands beat Brazil. But that's soccer. And this World Cup has provided some crazy score-lines.

Over the course of the month, watching a crazy number of games in various stadiums across the country, a couple things stuck out to me about the Finalists. The Netherlands non-flattering, rather unconvincing play sticks out. And so does Spain's superior command of a match.

Forget about tournament statistics heading into the Final. The numbers flatter the Netherlands. The Orange are the fan favourite at Soccer City as well. Discount that as being a discernable advantage.

What speaks louder is Spain's unmatched ability keeping the ball and thus dictating the pace of the game. That's what soccer's all about ­ exerting your will on the opponent.

All too often, tactics nowadays are designed to maintain, and not progress.

The Netherlands have played all teams with a bend-but-do-not-break mentality. With the talent in the Dutch side, those teams were predictably punished. To beat The Netherlands, you must attack their backline where they are vulnerable.

Spain does exactly that. They attack with poise and precision. They play the soccer equivalent of going for the jugular. It hasn't always paid off in goals in South Africa, but there has never been a question who's the class on the pitch in every game.

Even Spain's opening loss to Switzerland reeked of hard luck. Kudos to the Swiss for fighting tooth-and-nail for victory, but wasted opportunities are wasted opportunities.

As the World Cup has progressed, those wasted opportunities turned into opportune goals for Spain, particularly Golden Boot favourite, David Villa.

There is just too much quality for the goals not TO come. And nobody would be surprised if they come in a bunch Sunday.

That's by no means disrespect to The Netherlands. It's praise to the best centre-midfield in the tournament. Xavi and Iniesta are the epitome of master-class. The intelligence behind their passing, and just as important movement off the ball is a pleasure to watch. The ability to create and recreate triangles and appropriate passing lanes across the field is an art form. And the way they sliced and diced a strong German midfield, pushing them back into deep positions was the decisive factor in the semifinal victory.

Coach Vicente Del Bosque understands the importance of consistency and heady play. He's truly put together a "team" in all sense of the word. Leaving star players Fernando Torres and Cesc Fabregas, two of the best players in the world, on the bench takes gull and some serious stones.

Yet he does so and everything works. The possession-based style can partially be attributed to the Barcelona connection in the side Xavi, Iniesta, Carlos Puyol and Gerard Pique ­ lining up down the middle. This strength up the middle is what makes Spain so dominant. Familiarity breeds success.

The Netherlands, on the flipside, relies on individuals. And the Dutch really do have some extraordinarily talented players in the bunch. But we've seen time and time again in South Africa, it's not the name on the back that matters, it's the patch on the front.

Watching Holland closely, numerous times, the team simply looks disjointed.

There's no fluidity. Surely, there are moments of brilliance but that doesn't win World Cup finals.

And it's almost as if the team doesn't actually think they can win. There's something tentative and unsure about their play. Even against an under-manned Uruguay, they failed to deliver the final knockout blow. Maybe that's what comes from years of national disappointment. The close calls of 1974 and 1978 were long ago, but the collective memory still resonates.

Stranger things have happened. The Netherlands is strong and well-balanced enough to win this thing. I just can't see it happening against the Mighty Spanish.

Unbeaten in 25 matches is quite the run. But Sunday's World Cup final is what counts.

And it's Spain's to lose.

gareth.wheeler@suntv.canoe.ca


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