By: Jason Le Miere

A typically well-worked David Villa goal saw Spain progress to the quarterfinals of the World Cup after a narrow, but ultimately comfortable, 1-0 victory over Portugal in Cape Town, Tuesday.

While Portugal were successful in frustrating the Spanish for a large part of the match, Spain finally turned up the heat around the hour mark and soon took what always looked like being a decisive lead, with a superb goal.

Things did not always look like going the way of the Spanish, however, and Portugal will have certainly been the happier side at the

Photo from fOTOGLIF

interval. After an opening few minutes, where Spain, through Torres and Villa twice, tested Eduardo with good strikes from the inside left position, Portugal largely contained the Spanish and even looked dangerous at the other end.

As expected, Portugal coach Carlos Queiroz set his Portugal side up with the first instinct to drop deep and try to negate any space for the accurate passing of the Spanish to cut through. For large periods Portugal had all 10 outfields players behind the ball and doubled and tripled up on the Spanish danger men.

As the half progressed, it was Portugal that looked the likelier side to break the deadlock and it was they who had the best chance of the period. After 39 minutes Raul Meireles cut back onto his right foot and swung a cross in from the left toward the far post where Hugo Almeida met it but headed poorly wide, with Cristiano Ronaldo lying in wait, unmarked, behind him.

Portugal, too, would have been encouraged by the erratic handling of Spanish keeper Iker Casillas in the opening half. First, he could only parry a Tiago shot up in the air and had to sprint back to prevent Almeida heading into the net and later he spilled a Ronaldo free kick from over 35 meters out.

The second half began where the first left off, with Spain still lacking the incisive passing to penetrate Portugal’s defensive formation. The Portuguese also again came close to scoring, when Almeida made a good break down the left and his ball inside flicked off Puyol and sailed agonizingly wide of Casillas’ goal.

The game, though, seemed to change after a simultaneous substitution that saw Llorente replace the disappointing Torres for Spain and Danny come on for the dangerous-looking Almeida for the Portuguese.

Llorente almost scored within minutes of coming on when a cross came in from the right and he found himself unmarked in front of goal, but was only able to direct his low header straight at Eduardo.

But, with greater impetus in their passing and movement and now with the added physical presence of Llorente up front, Spain did not have to wait long for their breakthrough.

The goal came in the 63rd minute after classic intricate passing, intelligent movement, and close control that has become symbolic of this stylish Spanish side. After several great touches, Andres Inniesta played it through into the area, Xavi flicked it on, and Villa arrived onto it, coming in from his position on the left. Although, the new Barcelona striker’s first shot was well saved, he gobbled up the rebound, striking it over Eduardo and in off the crossbar.

Given the way Portugal set up, a goal for Spain was always going to leave them struggling to recover. Especially with the focal point of their attack, Almeida taken off, the Portuguese did not seem to have any idea of how to adjust their negative tactics to try to get back into the game.

In fact, it looked likelier that Spain would extend their lead. Sergio Ramos marauded forward from right back, cut inside onto his left foot and hit a low shot across goal that was just diverted wide by Eduardo. Then Villa again, the best player on the pitch, had another dangerous effort, this time from outside the area, that Eduardo saved.

Although Liedson came on to try and support Ronaldo up front, the Portuguese weren’t able to exert any real pressure on the Spanish goal; their only opportunity falling to Danny, whose shot was well blocked by the Spanish defense.

Portugal’s misery was compounded in the last couple of minutes when Ricardo Costa was given an early exit following a tussle with Spanish left back Joan Capdevilla. A deliberate elbow appeared to have been thrown toward the face of Capdevilla by Costa and, although it’s hard to ascertain how much contact was made and the Spaniard certainly made the most of it, the referee had no option but to produce red.

As the final whistle blew, Portugal went out of the 2010 World Cup with a whimper and Spain marched on knowing that, if they are able to reproduce more of the football displayed in the second half, they have a great chance of lifting the trophy for the first time.

Without a doubt the main talking points of the Portuguese campaign in South Africa will be the negative tactics employed and the failure of the world’s most expensive player, Ronaldo, to truly come to the fore. There is certainly an argument to be made that the former was in large-part responsible for the latter.

It was noticeable in the last match against Brazil, and even more so today, that Ronaldo was hugely frustrated with the tactics of Queiroz that left him with no support and required him to take on a whole defense virtually single handedly to make anything happen. It was no coincidence that his best moments in the tournament came from speculative long range shots and free kicks. In the match against Spain, Ronaldo could be noticeably seen gesturing toward the bench for some more support and a shift in the game plan.

In support of Queiroz, it could be argued that he was getting Portugal to play to their strengths, which, in contrast to recent times, is their defense. Most poignantly, Portugal no longer has that genius playmaker in the midfield, like Rui Costa and Deco, who although at this tournament was no longer able to effectively contribute.

This Portuguese side, with Pepe shielding Ricardo Carvalho and Bruno Alves and Eduardo guarding the net behind them, are a formidable force to break down, as demonstrated by them conceding only one goal in this tournament. The problem is that that one goal sent them home. There seemed to be no plan b and, lest not forget, while they may have only conceded one, they also only scored in one game out of four.

Add to this that the fact that Ronaldo, one of the world’s truly great attacking talents, was left isolated and unable to make any real impact during the tournament, and Queiroz’s tactics begin to look rather questionable.

Certainly a public back home, who in recent years have been treated to technically proficient, attractive football, will not be happy with the way their side played during the World Cup. Given that his support back home was already less than resounding, it would be a surprise if Queiroz was kept on for their qualifying campaign for the 2012 European Championships.

In the end, Portugal played like a side of far lesser ability: a big underdog who tries to nullify the opposition, while relying on sneaking a goal at the other end or banking on their ability to triumph in a penalty shootout. The fact is Portugal may not have the playmaking ability of the past, but they are not devoid of quality players. And while they may have gone out at this stage anyway, at least by playing a more expressive style they would have put a smile on people’s faces, perhaps even Ronaldo’s.

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