Reuters - European champions Spain qualified for the Confederations Cup semi-finals with a 1-0 win over a defensive Iraq side on Wednesday.
The victory was a world record-equalling 14th consecutive international win and stretched their unbeaten run to 34 matches - one short of the world record of 35 held by Brazil.
Forward David Villa's powerful 55th minute header made him
Spain's second highest scorer of all time with 30 goals - 14
behind Raul's record of 44.
It was his fifth international goal in a week following a
hat-trick against Azerbaijan last Tuesday and another strike
against New Zealand on Sunday.
Spain had to work hard against the ultra-defensive Asian
champions who, despite drawing their opening match 0-0 against
South Africa and losing this one without scoring a goal are
still in with a chance of reaching the last four.
Spain, who beat New Zealand 5-0 in their opening game, top
the group with six points followed by South Africa and Iraq on
one and New Zealand with none.
But this match was in stark contrast to the New Zealand rout
and until the unmarked Villa headed in Joan Capdevila's cross 10
minutes after the break it looked like Spain would fail to score
for the first time since a 0-0 draw with Italy in Euro 2008.
Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque made four changes to his
starting lineup, leaving defenders Carles Puyol and Raul Albiol
on the bench with midfielders Cesc Fabregas and Albert Riera.
Although their replacements Gerard Pique, Carlos Marchena,
Juan Manuel Mata and Santi Cazorla all played well, they found
it hard going against the well-organised but negative Iraqis who
seemed happy to limit the damage to one goal.
Iraq coach Bora Milutinovic, who said on Tuesday he might
field an even more defensive team than he did to gain a draw
against South Africa, was true to his word.
He named a side with six defenders, while the lone striker,
Alaa Abdul Zahra, usually plays as an attacking midfielder.
The defensive tactics stifled Spain's attacking prowess and
killed the game as a spectacle with the favourites continuously
frustrated by the sheer weight of numbers defending.
Iraq only managed one shot on target in the first half when
Zahra fired tamely at goalkeeper Iker Casillas after 10 minutes,
while Spain's best efforts went wide and striker Fernando Torres
was left to feed on half-chance scraps he failed to convert.
Defender Sergio Ramos nearly doubled Spain's lead with a
blistering shot that went just over the bar after 78 minutes.
But in the end they did just enough to join Brazil, France
and Australia as one of only four countries to win 14 successive
matches according to FIFA's official statistics.
Iraq coach Bora Milutinovich, whose news conferences rattle along like an
old-time vaudeville show, amazed the media on Wednesday when he
expressed his delight at his team's defeat to Spain.
The 64-year-old Serbian-born coach, in charge of his eighth
national side, proved he has lost none of his entertainment
value when he said he was happy despite losing the Group A
Confederations Cup match to the European champions.
"I am very, very happy with the defeat, I am not only happy
I am delighted. I was very happy with the way my team played and
I am very pleased we did not lose by four goals.
"We played very intelligently, but Spain are Spain, they are
a great team, but I have to say I am happy with the outcome. We
are still in the competition.
"In the first game it is important not to lose, in the
second game it is important to get the best possible result and
we did that today. Maybe we can go through to the semi-finals
with only two points. It is possible."
Iraq drew their opening match 0-0 with South Africa and,
despite losing this game, they will go into their last match
against Oceania champions New Zealand with a chance of
qualifying for the last four, no matter what the outcome of the
South Africa-New Zealand match later on Wednesday.
"My team was very disciplined today, very organised and I
was very pleased with them," Milutinovic added.
Spanish coach Vicente Del Bosque, like Milutinovic, was also happy with the outcome which took his to the semi-finals after
beating New Zealand 5-0 in their opening game.
"Iraq played with a lot of dignity. They played a smart game
and played to their limits and made it very diffuclt for us
today. It was never going to be the same game as against New
Zealand with a big scoreline, but I am very pleased with the way
we played today," he said.
"I am happy because we have achieved our first goal of
reaching the semi-finals and have done that in the first two
matches. Now I should be able to rest some players for the South
Africa match and plan for the rest of the tournament."
Villa's goal - his fifth in just over a week for Spain -
took his international tally to 30 and he became Spain's second
highest scorer behind Raul who has 44.
Asked how he rated Villa among the world's best strikers Del
Bosque replied: "He could play in any team in the world, but I
don't know what his transfer value would be. I don't know
anything about the economy."