Wednesday, July 7, 2010 ESPNsoccernet: July 8, 10:05 AM UK
Inspirational Puyol ensures progress
John Brewin, Durban
The Spanish eyes were smiling, the Germans sank to the turf in despair. A Catalan death-metal fan had become the toast of Spain. Carles Puyol was an unlikely source for the winning goal but this was a game always destined to be won by the single moment of either inspiration or error. In fact, Puyol's goal provided both.
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Seemingly marked only by his own team-mate in Gerard Pique, the Barcelona icon's bullet header left Manuel Neuer with little chance as no opponent blocked his long surge towards Xavi's corner. The cliche of German discipline had been debunked and thereafter they failed to produce a consistent threat on the Spanish goal, with the better opportunities falling to their opponents with Pedro especially guilty of blowing the chance to secure an easier margin.
Whereas in Cape Town on Tuesday the Uruguayans had even seemed accepting of their fate, neither of these European powerhouses were minded to settle for the pain of a semi-final defeat, despite Spain enjoying their first outing at this late stage of a World Cup. When the end did come, the Germans lingered longest, with tears being shed by several of their young players. It was over, but disbelief had not yet relinquished its grip.
The Spanish celebrations were uproarious yet brief. Expectations have been so raised by winning Euro 2008 that anything other than complete victory will not be enough for Spain, especially with another Euro nation awaiting at Soccer City on Sunday. Their initially halting campaign is now close to bearing the sweetest of fruits and the World Cup trophy is to have a new name engraved whomever shall win at the weekend. Third-time lucky for the Dutch or those tales of unfulfilled Spanish potential finally becoming footnotes? Europe's two best teams in qualifying are now the last men standing as a continent prepares to celebrate its first away win.
For the participants in this second semi-final, Durban provided a seaside setting for two teams though vastly differing memories. It was here that Spain had fallen to the Swiss in their opening match while a thrashing of Australia had signified Germanic intent on their own first bow. A mixture of the fans of both teams had made their way along a promenade that looks out to the Indian Ocean and sampled the cosmopolitan delights on offer before witnessing an encounter which served as diametric opposites to those first salvos nearly a month ago.
One of the keys to the various exits of the big names from this competition has been matches getting away from each team's masterplan. Brazil's deadly patience fell amid ill-discipline, England's self-worth fell to rank mediocrity and Argentine attacking flair fell to pragmatic pacy attacking. This time it was the Germans who were unable to action their preferred style; they found it difficult to counter-attack against a team whose line was held deep and who rarely attacked in kamikaze numbers even when enjoying the majority of possession. Coach Joachim Low, a picture of resignation not yet ready to admit where his own future may lie, knew the source of his team's problem.
"Whenever we won the ball, we lost it quickly," said the inadvertent style icon. "We did not have the confidence we had before. Spain circulated the ball well and it was difficult to get it back."
High stakes can provide low excitement, and Germany certainly played within themselves, drawing the Spanish on to them but never letting off the safety catch and attacking in the manner that had put England and Argentina to the sword. They were unable to muster an effort on goal until Piotr Trochowski's 32nd-minute drive forced Iker Casillas into his first action.
That said, their opponents were similarly conservative in their outlook. Despite the shockwaves caused by the omission of Fernando Torres, the loading of the midfield with Pedro playing in the stead of injured Cesc Fabregas was a clear attempt to ape the style of their victory over the same opposition in Vienna two years ago. The impact of David Villa, their shining star in Africa, was thus lessened. The striker's more central position stopped him arriving from the left channel from which he had fired Spain to this juncture. Against a gigantic German backline, Torres-like frustration began to personify Villa. This was to be no game for fleet-footed forward play; it would take a gritty figure to decide it. Villa, eventually replaced by Torres late on, will have to save the heroics for Sunday.
Extra-time and penalties may have seemed to point to a better chance for Germany but they did not arrive. At a moment when the clock was beginning to be peered at, Puyol charged in on Xavi's corner, and the job was done. Though Spain had to wait far longer than in the final of 2008, the result was the same once the first goal arrived; the Germans played out time while held at arm's length. Low was happy to hand the credit to a team that had denied him once more. "Spain are the best in the world," he said. "In 2008 they won in a convincing way. I am confident they will win the title, they can beat everybody."
Vicente Del Bosque, so vilified after losing to the Swiss, looked as if he may actually crack a smile but this is a manager for whom satisfaction is rarely shared with those who are deemed to have been against him. A couple of bear hugs were shared with friendly journalists but then it was back to business. He still spoke of how undeserved that opening defeat was. It has now gained the quality of being key to his team's presence in Sunday's showpiece. "We have been growing," he said. "And this is what has taken us to the final."
MAN OF THE MATCH - Carles Puyol. The Barcelona captain flies in the face of his team-mates' aesthetics in midfield and attack but showed them how it can be done with a wonderful winner. Back in his defensive day job, Miroslav Klose was made to wait for his record attempt, and reduced to scraps. And the winner was no quirk of fortune. A triumph of will and application, Puyol's header gave Neuer no chance whatsoever.
SPAIN VERDICT: They are in the final and still are yet to thrill. Such is their assurance in their passing game and its eventual delivering of results. The margin of victory could have been more if Pedro had not got greedy late on. It is hard to argue with Low's high praise and his logic that this will be the title-winning team.
GERMANY VERDICT: Are they becoming the nearly men of the game? Stop laughing at the back there. Just as at the Euros and even at the last two World Cups, they have not quite been good enough. Most countries would swap places but they keep falling foul of teams with a better class of operator. Thomas Muller was missed, as Low admitted, but there will be higher hopes for such a youthful outfit.
EXTRA TIME: It seems that FIFA is no fan of the type of late-show fun delivered so often in the Premier League and that every match has a linear amount of three minutes added. Perhaps it is this observer, but it is a struggle to remember a match in which that was not the amount time added on. Place your house on three minutes in the final...(no responsibility will be taken etc...)