By: Jason Le Miere
Spain progressed to the semi-finals of the World Cup for the first time in their history after a dramatic 1-0 victory over a resilient Paraguay in Johannesburg.
Despite not being at their best for large periods of the match, Spain secured victory courtesy of David Villa’s fifth goal of the tournament eight minutes from time.
After an uneventful first half, the match sprung into life early in the second with both sides being given and subsequently failing to convert penalties before Villa’s late strike sent the Spanish through to a meeting with Germany on Wednesday.
Paraguay came with a game plan to press and disrupt the Spanish rhythm while showing a determination to take advantage of any opening at the other end, and it proved mightily effective. Spain will have gone in at half time with much to think about after an
Photo from fOTOGLIF
opening 45 minutes where they were unable to get their usual fluid passing game going.
In fact, Paraguay will have perhaps even have been a little disappointed not to be in the lead at the break. In the 41st minute the lively Nelson Valdez thought he had put his side in front when he controlled and finished after a long cross in from the right. The celebrations, though, were short lived as the referee had blown his whistle for an offside against Valdez’s strike partner Oscar Cardozo. Although Cardozo did not touch the ball, his attempts to get on the end of the cross made him active in the officials’ minds.
Spain’s only worthwhile effort on goal in the opening period came from a Xavi volley from distance that just dipped over Paraguayan keeper Justo Villar’s goal.
The trademark crisp, accurate passing of the Spanish was sorely lacking, as even the normally infallible Xavi misplaced several simple passes. This along with a lack of urgency and a lack of movement in behind the Paraguayan defense saw Spanish moves break down time and time again outside the opposition penalty area.
The second half began in similar fashion and it was no surprise when the off-form Fernando Torres was replaced by Cesc Fabregas. Before the change could take effect, though, Paraguay had a fantastic chance to take a shock lead when defender Gerard Pique was penalized for dragging Cardozo down in the box from a Paraguayan corner. Cardozo got to his feet to take the spot kick, but shot too close to Iker Casillas, who made what was a fairly comfortable save.
This closest of shaves certainly appeared to spring Spain into life as they immediately went down the other end and were given a penalty of their own. That man Villa, bearing straight down on goal, was brought down by Antolin Alcaraz and the referee had no hesitation in awarding a second penalty in quick succession. Much to the Spanish players’ consternation, however, the referee only handed out a yellow card to the Paraguayan defender, despite him appearing to deny a clear goal scoring opportunity.
The responsibility to succeed where Paraguay had just failed was given to midfielder Xabi Alonso and he confidently stepped up and sent Villar the wrong way to seemingly give Spain the lead. Referee Carlos Batres, though, had other ideas and he made Alonso retake the penalty after witnessing Spanish encroachment before the kick was taken. At the second time of asking Alonso put the ball to the opposite side, but Villar produced a good save low to his left. This would not be the end of the drama as Fabregas sprinted onto the rebound and was brought to the floor by Villar, but the referee decided against giving spot kick number three.
Spain continued to show greater impetus and increased threat thereafter, with Villa, looking a much greater menace than Torres up front, aided by increased urgency and movement in-behind him following Fabregas’ arrival. However, despite efforts from the edge of the area from Xavi and Andres Iniesta, the breakthrough still would not come for Spain.
As the game started to tick toward extra time, Spain still had to be wary of Paraguayan attacks at the other end. Throughout Spain looked uncertain and hesitant in defense; Roque Santa Cruz almost taking advantage of this only to see his shot blocked moments after arriving as a substitute.
With the quality that they have at their disposal, though, Spain know that they are capable of cutting through any team in a blink of an eye. And so it proved in the 83rd minute. After a neat interchange with Xavi, Iniesta broke past two Paraguayan challenges and burst into the area before shifting it to his right for the open Pedro, whose shot came back off the post. The one man you would want the ball to fall to in this position is David Villa and he duly converted the rebound, although only by the finest of margins as the ball struck both posts before rustling the net.
After putting in such a momentous effort for almost 90 minutes many teams will have simply succumbed to the inevitable defeat after falling behind, but Paraguay fought on and almost grabbed a late equalizer. Lucas Barrios cracked the ball straight at Casillas from the corner of the box, but the Spanish keeper spilled the shot back out to the onrushing Santa Cruz, but Casillas was able to recover to block the follow up with his legs.
That proved to be the last scare for Spain and despite the elation that they showed at the final whistle upon reaching the final four, they will know that they are unlikely to get away with a similar performance against the on-fire Germans in the semis.
So far Spain have been able to progress by turning on the heat for short spells in matches, seemingly safe in the knowledge that this would be enough to get the job done. But although Paraguay played the game of their lives, Spain will know that the quality of the opposition takes a steep upward curve from here on out.
Germany’s sprightly young guns have demonstrated in spectacular fashion against England and Argentina that they will take advantage of any opening and any sluggishness in the opposition ranks. Spain have started both knockout games lacking urgency, before cranking up through the gears to get the goal they needed, and a similar pattern against Germany could see them one or two goals down and almost done for before they even get going.
When their tippy-tappy play is at its best, though, there is no team left in this tournament that is a match for Spain and if they are able to produce a high level for extended periods then their first World Cup title is theirs for the taking.