Sunday, June 29, 2008

Ballack fitness the key in battle of playing styles


The destination of the Henri Delaunay trophy could hinge on the fitness of Germany captain Michael Ballack, who has a calf strain and missed Saturday training.

Tournament hot-shot David Villa is of course also missing for Spain, but the absence of the Chelsea midfielder for Germany looks the more crucial.

Cesc Fabregas slotted in against Russia and pulled the strings, while Daniel Guiza has shown his prowess in the box already.

My hunch yesterday was that Germany's big match mentality would keep them a nose ahead of Spain, but news of Ballack's fitness has coloured that prediction. He leads by example and his goals have made the difference for Germany so many times, that you wonder if Lukas Podolski and Bastian Schweinsteiger can carry it off without him.

Spain will be boosted by the news. They are already euphoric to have after reaching the final and are brimming with confidence having zapped the Russians' much-fancied challenge so convincingly in the semi-final.

Luis Aragones' men are unbeaten in 21 games since November 2006 and the country's first final for 44 years has enchanted the nation that more than any other are stamped underachievers on the football field.

Yet that over-enthusiasm could be their weakness, and the Germans know it. A florid opening and an early Spanish goal could be just what the Germans, often gentle starters, would relish to push themselves to grab control of the 90.

The German game-plan is as mental as physical: They will try to outmuscle the Spanish at key phases of the game to win the mental battle and disrupt their opponents' flow. Spain might take the lead but a German equalizer would be a heavier punch. With the psychological flow in their direction, Germany will then hit back with set pieces from Ballack or rapier counter-strikes through Lahm, Podolski and Schweinsteiger.

Spain's best weapon is to stay confident in their own abilities.

Their fantastic passing skills and technique have so far prevailed over all challengers at Euro 2008, but the biggest test is now, a contest which looks too close to call if both teams are fit.

It is hard to remember a team playing such beautiful football making a final, which makes Spain the romantic choice of the heart.

Yet first the Tiki-Taka game must overcome the most physically imposing and mentally tough eleven of the tournament.

Let the style trial commence.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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