Saturday, July 3, 2010
Spain struggling to find inner beauty
John Brewin, Ellis Park Stadium
The penultimate weekend of this tournament will be remembered as when European football reasserted its dominance. Argentina and Brazil's twin exits leave the continent of South America with only a faint hope of eventual success via injury-hit and suspension-ridden Uruguay. One of Spain, Germany and the Netherlands look set to become the first Europeans to lift the World Cup trophy outside of their continent.
• Martino upset by big decisions
• Ball: End of the quarter-final curse
• Fabregas taking nothing for granted
• Photo gallery
• Blog: 90 minutes of extreme suffering
The irony of the post-mortems being carried out across the Atlantic is that the rigours of the European leagues are bound to be blamed for the failure of so many of this tournament's expected megastars. Yet La Liga and the Bundesliga will provide the participants in one semi-final and henceforth a finalist and while all of Germany's starters in Cape Town ply their trade back home, only Fernando Torres of Spain's initial selection in Johannesburg plays outside his home country.
To follow the pattern of a topsy-turvy tournament that has delivered surprise in spades, it is Germany and not the Spanish who have supplied the most visible element of flair in South Africa. Spain, for long periods of this game, were made to look ponderous and lacking in ideas. They were restricted by the determination of Paraguay, who, after supplying rank tedium against the Japanese, were not going to allow this to lurch into a game of swift counter-attacks of the type that had done for their South American compadres earlier on Saturday. Relieved Spanish coach Vicente Del Bosque labelled this a "tough and uncomfortable match".
Spain's first-half showing here was as hesitant as any they have supplied in a tournament in which the upper gears have been so absent as to suggest their non-existence. David Villa has been their repeated saviour, in the absence of consistency from the Real Madrid and Barcelona contingents. Saturday had seen Ghana lose their nerve when a first semi-final for Africa beckoned, and this lax showing from the Spaniards looked likely to deny them a first-ever semi-final place. They had luck too; the Paraguayans were denied what looked a legitimate goal when Nelson Valdez was wrongly flagged offside, for which their coach Gerardo Martino jokingly asked for an apology from FIFA in the aftermath of a defeat he did not feel his men deserved.
Apart from that, as excitement goes, this was not even in the same galaxy as Soccer City's Friday sensations - though intrigue was eventually provided by a remarkable exchange of missed penalties. Casillas had clearly been watching Paraguay's previous encounter - perhaps as an aid to slumber - and knew which way Cardozo, the scorer of the decisive kick in the second-round shoot-out with Japan, would place a 58th minute penalty after Pique's molestation of the same player.
Then, barely seconds later, Villa was similarly treated by Antolin Alcaraz to hand Xabi Alonso the chance to score from the spot. Encroachment negated his first successful kick and then Villar guessed a change of direction for the retake before then looking to have up-ended Fabregas as the substitute seized on the rebound. The Guetamalan official had clearly had enough of pointing to the spot and waved away angry protests. He is unlikely to be asked back by FIFA after this display.
That Fabregas was on the field was a result of another poor showing from Torres and he looks set to join the likes of Rooney, Ronaldo and latterly Messi in failing to replicate anything like his club form on this global stage. He may yet finish this tournament with a winners' medal while also ending it as a souped-up Stephane Guivarc'h, France's infamous non-scoring striker of their 1998 triumph. Del Bosque deflected understandable questions about the continuing low levels that Torres provided here and attempted to explain his early removal. "Physically he is fine. We took him off because the team was not fine-tuning the game. We are very happy with his work," said the coach somewhat unconvincingly.
That Villa is the tournament's outstanding player, with due deference to Thomas Muller, can only heighten the disappointment at Torres' performances and lack of sharpness. Villa's finish may have owed much to fortune when crashing the ball off the post when Pedro had already rattled the woodwork but when your luck is in...the striker now looks like a bargain €40 million purchase for Barcelona.
No less valuable was Casillas, who reminded of his Euro 2008 heroics with the penalty save and then a point-blank smother of a late Santa Cruz chance. "Casillas was decisive," admitted Martino. "He's had a very important role to play."
The Paraguay coach was not yet in a mood to celebrate the success of reaching the uncharted territory of the quarter-finals. "I don't feel happy or satisfied making history. Spain have gone to the semi-finals but we could as well," he said.
Of Cardozo, the striker with whom he has a testy relationship, and who blew a probable chance to take Paraguay where Spain will be in midweek, Martino was guardedly sympathetic. "He feels very bad but with time it will be a memory," said the coach. "But it is impossible to change his feelings now."
Another South American exit, to make it three over the weekend. A classic is expected in Durban on Wednesday. Andres Iniesta spoke for the high expectations of the all-European encounter, a repeat of the final of Euro 2008, when he said: "Germany have had a brilliant World Cup so far and it will be a beautiful match." And it is Spain who are yet to find their inner beauty.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Iker Casillas - That the Spanish players ran first to their keeper to celebrate this narrow victory says it all. That Cardozo hit the ground in misery at exactly the same time says even more. A fine appreciation of the Benfica man's intentions saved Spain as did a late save from Roque Santa Cruz.
PARAGUAY VERDICT: They have reached their furthest reaches ever in this competition and had a veritable chance to go even further. Yet they shall not be missed. At times, they seemed happy to revive the torpor of their match with the Japanese. They did create the best chances of a dreadful first half but perhaps never quite believed enough.
SPAIN VERDICT: We are yet to view them as a rich attacking force, and indeed perhaps they are not even such a team. Patience is their leading virtue. That, and having match-winners like David Villa and Iker Casillas.
NOT SUCH SWEET SORROW: This quarter-final was your scribe's last appearance at unlovable Ellis Park - the seventh in total. While a fine arena in terms of being a vantage point on a sporting occasion, its environs of downtown Johannesburg are threatening, while the rickety walkway to the draughty media centre shall not be missed, and neither will the chicken burgers.