Spain won through to a potentially epic semi-final meeting with Germany but the European champions had to do it the hard way requiring a lone second-half strike from David Villa to edge past a typically resolute Paraguay 1-0 at Johannesburg’s Ellis Park. The goal saw Villa move to outright lead of the adidas Golden Boot with five goals but the match was as much a tale of two failed spot-kicks, one for each side.
A confident Vicente del Bosque fielded an unchanged Spanish line-up to that which defeated neighbours Portugal 1-0 four days ago. Conversely Paraguay coach Gerardo Martino made a remarkable six changes to the team which squeezed past Japan on penalties. Left out were his trio of misfiring strikers with Roque Santa Cruz, Edgar Benitez and Lucas Barrios all remaining on the bench.
Both sides went into the match aiming for new zeniths. Spain made a top-four finish in 1950 in a round-robin final stage but they have never competed in a FIFA World Cup™ semi-final, while Paraguay had already achieved a first by progressing past the Round of 16.
If Spain were feeling complacent then one of the new faces in La Albirroja’s forward line, Jonathan Santana, provided an early wake-up call by forcing Iker Casillas into a save in the opening minute. Paraguay didn’t allow Spain to settle and successfully disrupted their normally crisp passing game during the first half. In-form David Villa only rarely found space on the left flank in the early stages, while at the other end Nelson Valdez looked dangerous whenever Paraguay made forays forward.
Spain midfielder Xavi took matters into his own hands on the half hour mark with a wonderful snap shot; the dipping volley from 30 metres clearing the crossbar with goalkeeper Justo Villar scrambling. Minutes later at the other end Santana narrowly failed to connect with a diving header from a Claudio Morel cross. Valdez then had the ball in the net four minutes before the break only to see his effort disallowed for offside as Paraguay finished the first half in a positive frame of mind.
The second half commenced in similar fashion to the first period with stalemate and neither goalkeeper under threat until a remarkable period either side of the hour mark.
Gerard Pique wrestled Oscar Cardozo to the ground as a corner, Paraguay’s first of the night, was played in from the left. Cardozo looked set to give La Albirroja a stunning lead against the European champions only for skipper Casillas to rescue his side with a superb stop diving to his left.
Within 60 seconds Antolin Alcaraz was deemed to have bundled over Villa in the penalty area and Spain had their own chance from the penalty spot. Xabi Alonso buried his spot-kick but Spanish joy was short-lived with a retake ordered for encroachment. This time Villar dived low to his left and parried Alonso’s effort with Paraguay just scrambling the rebound to safety. It is the first time that two penalties had been missed in a FIFA World Cup match since Argentina and Mexico took the field in 1930.
Minutes later Andres Iniesta hit a curling effort that was well blocked by Villar, and it was indeed to be the Barcelona midfield genius who proved the difference in the decisive moment of the match seven minutes from full time. Budweiser Man of the Match Iniesta made a driving run from midfield teeing up Pedro, whose shot hit Villar’s right-hand post before rebounding to Villa who placed his effort against the left side of the goal with the ball eventually nestling in the net, but only after incredibly rebounding off the opposite post.
In the final minute Casillas saved his side with a double block from Santa Cruz and Barrios, while Villa was similarly denied by the impressive Villar in a lighting counter-attack.
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