It adds deliciously to this game that the two sides haven’t met since that infamous World Cup final four years ago.
Holland were brutal, incurring the wrath of legends of their game like Johan Cruyff and Clarence Seedorf, and lost the match, effectively, because Johnny Heitinga was sent off.
He hauled Andrés Iniesta back once too often, saw a second yellow and when the cross from Fernando Torres came in, late in extra time, Rafa Van der Vaart fell over while trying to deputise for the absent Heitinga and the rest …. is history.
Cesc Fabregas to Iniesta and …. Gol! Gol! Gol! You probably remember it.
All of that is relevant to this game in the clammy heat of Salvador because of discipline.
Even though it’s likely there will be only four Dutch and perhaps seven Spaniards starting this Group B match having lined up for the World Cup final in Soccer City, there is certainly room for grudges.
For De Jong to tangle with Xabi Alonso once more, for Robben to race with Ramos, for Sneijder (who was boiling with rage after the 2010 final when I saw him outside the Dutch dressing room) to tangle with Sergio Busquets.
Losing that final, their second defeat in the world’s ultimate football match, was a bitter blow for the Oranje football nation – those playing and those watching.
The desire to erase the blemish will be great – maybe overwhelming for some.
More, De Jong’s Bruce Lee chest-high studding of Xabi Alonso’s chest is now so iconic of that final, so famous, that any referee, presented with a De Jong foul on a Spaniard may subconsciously be quicker to ensure he doesn’t join the officiating infamy and thus quicker to show a yellow card.
Refs ARE human after all.
But, as I say, discipline will give a significant advantage to the team mature enough to display it.
Spain are often thwarted or at least frustrated by packed defences and Louis Van Gaal hasn’t been experimenting with five at the back, ripping up the tactical book of his football life, in order to make Holland more open, more attacking.
So, if you look at Van Gaal’s logic, the last thing he wants is an 11 v 10 situation at any stage in the match.
Strength in numbers
He’ll din it in to his players that they compete, that they make it uncomfortable for Spain – but that they present totally different stats to the last time these sides played when Holland racked up 29 fouls, nine yellow cards and a red.
Give Spain a numerical advantage in an important match and there’s a very high chance you’ll regret it.
From the age of 15 it’s repeated endlessly to Spain’s young talents that it’s a sin to be sent off. To leave your team mates in the lurch. That your place will be hard to win back.
Spain’s last tournament match was blighted by the red card for Gerard Piqué, let’s not forget that, and Del Bosque too will be emphasizing to his men that he’ll be unforgiving of anyone who hands the already threatening Holland XI an added advantage.
Watching the world champion’s training this week I can’t help but suspect that it’s more than just the fact that Spain have only scored 14 of the 25 penalties they’ve been awarded in the Del Bosque reign which has seen them practice so many spot kicks.
Cesc Fabregas’ miss against El Salvador last weekend may have reminded the manager that it’s time for Spain to brush up skills which have seen them win shoot outs against Italy (x 2) and Portugal in three of their last five tournaments.
Fine. But there have been so many different players hitting penalties that you’d deduce Vicente Del Bosque’s scouts reckon on Holland’s inexperienced back five giving away a spot kick on Friday evening (8pm).
For those interested the order of priority which Del Bosque has set for penalty takers is: David Villa, Cesc, Alonso and then …. perhaps Ramos? We shall see.
How Spain start looks to be down to a very small refinement in midfield and attack.
Anyone who’s seen training would be surprised if the 4-3-3 formation doesn’t line up: Casillas; Azpilicueta, Piqué, Ramos, Alba: Xavi/Koke, Busquets, Alonso; Silva, Costa/Fabregas, Iniesta.
As terrific as Koke has looked in all the work-outs this week, all nimble feet and clever options taken when the ball comes to him plus a robust, shrewd presence in midfield defensive work, Del Bosque thinks so highly of Xavi that it’d be a surprise to see him benched at the start of the tournament.
Rotated as the World Cup evolves? Okay. Regularly playing only 55-65 minutes? Fine. But left out for the first game with all the attendant media coverage. I struggle to imagine it.
The ‘centre forward’ position is at least as intriguing. The last major game when Del Bosque was faced with an opponent using five at the back was the opener of Euro 2012 against Italy and he chose to unpick Cesare Prandelli’s side with Cesc Fabregas at ‘false 9’.
It’s clearly an option again and the (soon to be former?) Barcelona man not only scored that day but, with Villa, Iniesta, Silva and Torres, has scored this week in training matches.
The counter to that is that Del Bosque left out a real favourite in Jesús Navas because of fears that he might ‘re-injure’ himself.
Yet Diego Costa was not only included in the 23 man travelling party he started against El Salvador and played the large majority of the match despite having limped off in the Champions League final with the recurrence of a hamstring problem.
Costa’s in the frame
All of that indicates that the Spain manager really wants to use Costa and that the Brazilian-born centre forward presents the type of threat which Spain have shown less regularly in recent years.
Those who played with Costa last Saturday in Washington told me that the ball was played ‘earlier’ to him and from longer distance because he is so good at losing his marker.
Perhaps he starts as a slight favourite to face Holland – but I don’t think the decision will be taken until match-day.
In the Confederations Cup a year ago, Spain began their match with Uruguay with the power and direction of a runaway train.
For 75 minutes it was best to just get out of their way. But they tired and Uruguay defended for their lives to the extend that the match only finished 2-1 with Spain unable to convert footballing dominance into a firm, nerveless, energy-saving win.
I’d see something similar occurring here in Salvador on Friday evening. Those tempted to look down the list of odds for less quoted scorers might be tempted by Pedro.
Not guarantee of any game time, he’s nevertheless someone who not only MIGHT start – he’s likely to be asked to supply the missing Navas magic by coming on for the last 25 minutes to test Holland with his blistering pace.
He’s also Spain’s top scorer over the last 18 months – burying chances which might have slid past for Barcelona.
A game the holders could lose? Yes, there’s definitely banana-skin potential.
A game they will lose? I’m not too sure about that. Goals from Ramos, Pedro and Robben and Spain off to a better start than four years ago.
- Spain to win 2-1 is 8/1 with Paddy Power.
- Pedro to score first 13/2 or anytime 5/2