May Battle Commence
Who's going to win it? Well, put your money on Germany, I guess. They haven't won anything since 1996 in England, but they've always been there or thereabouts. All those clichés about winning mentality and growing in adversity that were attributed to the Italians for the quarter-final against Spain can be multiplied by various factors when it comes to Germany.
If the Spanish were wary of the Italians, they are terrified of the Germans. Just ask Getafe, beaten in a wonderful game this season in the UEFA Cup when it looked impossible for the Spanish side to lose after battling back so heroically. But no - in the 90th minute no-one can hear you scream.
There's a temptation to roll out even more the stereotypes here, but maybe that's the order of the day. My German ESPN colleague, Uli Hesse-Lichtenberger, wrote to me last night with the almost poignant message of 'There's only us two left. Good luck mate!' - and Spain are going to need it. That was more or less the content of my reply. Despite everything that's gone on in this wonderful competition, despite Spain's breaking of their own curse and their excellent, open play, I still can't see them doing it.
The ray of hope is the possible absence of Michael Ballack, since the lack of David Villa will affect the Spanish team less. But you never know. So far the Germans have not really relied on individuals. The collective has got them through, as it always tends to do - whether their squad is a talented one or whether, as is the present case, it's a rather ordinary one.
Nevertheless, they cannot play as they did against Turkey and expect to get away with it against Spain, but you suspect that they know that. They don't need journalists to remind them of the fact that they're up against a five-man midfield that will attempt to overwhelm them, that will attempt to keep the ball again, as much as is humanly possible. Their two central defenders, Christoph Metzelder and Per Mertesacker will know that they require protection, and that Fernando Torres must not be allowed to make those runs into the spaces where Cesc Fabregas can slot passes all night long, if invited. Surely this time, the two pivots Thomas Hitzlsperger and Torsten Frings will look to get into Spanish faces, to unsettle them and make it look a little bit more difficult than it looked in the stroll against Russia?
Expect a game where both sides will look to exploit the cracks in the armoury that have already appeared during the tournament. There is nothing like an intensive series of games under the microscopic scrutiny of a football-hungry public to make it clear to all and sundry where the strengths and weaknesses of both sides lie. Sergio Ramos, for example, who started poorly, argued with Luis Aragonés but then left the sulking behind and joined in with the cause, still has a tendency to forget when it's appropriate to get forward down the right.
He might need to do this against Germany, but against Lukas Podolski he'll need to be wary. If Podolski gets the space he wants, Miroslav Klose will be grateful indeed. Ramos might decide to make Podolski work instead - but it's never as simple as that. Similarly, Bastian Schweinsteiger on the right might make Capdevila sweat a little more than he's had to in the past few games. The Germans will surely look to exploit their height and heading ability, which has seen them score three of their last four goals through that medium. Spain sort of coped with Luca Toni, but only because the Italians hadn't really thought about how they were going to get the ball into him. The Germans have more options in that department, Ballack or no Ballack.
But it's not really rocket science. If Xavi, Andreas Iniesta and David Silva are allowed to get beyond the German protection line, they'll cause havoc. It could even be a slaughter, strange though that may sound. The Spanish press have been distinctly underwhelmed by Metzelder's season at Real Madrid, and they simply don't rate him. They rate Jens Lehmann even less, but in that they're hardly alone. It remains something of a mystery how Germany have reached the final of this competition with possibly its worst goalkeeper, but life often contains little puzzles. You could say it speaks volumes of the German back line, but neither have they exactly distinguished themselves so far. Germany are in the final because day follows night and the leaves on the trees tend to be green. It's a truth that is sent to test us all, and on Sunday it will test the Spanish - never a footballing culture renowned for its mental toughness.
It would be nice, however, if they could do it. It would shift the European power focus a little, and would open a new era in which the dedication to a certain aesthetic - pass and move, pass and move, pass and move then do it again - may take hold in the playgrounds of Europe. Even the English might be persuaded to take notice. Stranger things have happened.
The fly in the ointment of this particular argument is that one suspects that Aragonés, bringing to this tournament his seventy years of hurt and pride, possesses no Plan B. If Spain's game gets rumbled, it's difficult to see what they will do. Germany favour a more direct approach, a faster type of link play between their midfield and their forward(s). The long ball seems to have crept into their play to a greater extent than has previously been seen, but in a perverse sense it is easier to work such a paradigm and add a few restorative touches (if it goes wrong) than it is to repair the more complex schemes inherent in the Spanish style of play.
Aragonés himself has suffered not a few slings and arrows in his long career as player and manager, and so it would be great to see his faith in his own style and this particular set of players finally vindicated. He could have resigned on a dozen occasions, and was on the brink when the press were giving him such stick for his attitude towards Raúl, but one suspects he stayed on because he knew that this squad of players - one that he has been careful to nurture and teach, like a grumpy but well-meaning grandpa - was a special one.
Born during the Spanish Civil War and brought up as a kid amongst the ruins and poverty of post-war Madrid, he owes nobody any favours. What he has achieved, he's achieved on his own, without any hand-outs from anyone. He has suffered from depression and various stress-related breakdowns, but has always bounced back. He has also suffered the bitter disappointment of losing in a replayed European Cup final as a player with Atlético Madrid (after his free-kick almost won them the first game). Surprise, surprise, that game was against Bayern Munich.
He won't want another disappointment at the hands of the Germans. Maybe destiny's on his side. The players certainly are. Liberated from the overwhelming presence of Raúl, they have at last been able to express themselves in a more autonomous tactical system, where the most creative players are given the freedom to roam, switch position, and express themselves with the ball.
If they can manage it for one last time in Vienna, and keep the unbeaten run going beyond a major tournament final, then the squad of 2008 will go down in history as the men who changed the face of Spain. The King and the Prime Minister will both be there to see if this can happen. There's a lot hanging on this final - but Germany are not about to hand them the trophy. My prediction? Erm…..haven't got a clue - but I haven't half enjoyed the show so far.