Spain cracks stifling Paraguay defense
CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- It took a dreadful game, two missed penalties and a goal on an attack that hit the post three times, but Spain scraped out a 1-0 win Saturday over Paraguay to advance to the semifinals for the first time in its World Cup history. Here are the heroes and zeroes:
Xavi, Spain: A-
The only Spaniard to play up to his usual level, Xavi scattered good balls to all those around him but saw only a smattering of them arrive to his out-of-form compatriots. The look of frustration was evident from his face, too, but he did manage some good solo shots, including two in the second half that went just off the mark. As the team began to click, Xavi's importance in Spain's midfield became more and more clear. It was his backheel pass that started the scoring sequence.
Andres Iniesta, Spain: B+
Iniesta had another inconsistent game, trading superb long balls with mistakes on the simplest of touches. He had several chances to score and created several more, but his form in the midfield was emblematic of that of the rest of his team. We've still not seen Iniesta anywhere near his best at this tournament. How much longer can Spain afford to have him underperform?
David Villa, Spain: B+
Villa, too, was off his game, and he missed that sharpness that's become his trademark during this World Cup. Part of that credit goes to Paraguay, which did a good job of choking off his supply routes. In the end, all was forgiven as the Spanish striker took a late shot that bounced off both posts before trickling in.
Fernando Torres, Spain: C
Torres spent another game showing why he shouldn't be playing yet. The striker is clearly far removed from game-playing shape and looked unusually slow. Not surprisingly, he came off shortly after halftime.
Claudio Morel Rodríguez, Paraguay: B
The hard-as-nails defensive anchorman had a strong match, interfering with Spain's otherwise fluent passing game along with the rest of his line. The left back incurred a yellow, but overall, he and his defensive teammates did a wonderful job frustrating Spain and keeping this game close.
Óscar Cardozo, Paraguay: C
The man who has been almost solely relied upon to provide a spark up front for Paraguay did little. What's more, he missed a penalty -- although, in fairness, he didn't get a chance to retake it even though there was a blatant case of Spanish encroachment on his kick. The ref did call that at the other end, funny enough, forcing Xabi Alonso to retake a kick. (Alonso missed the second try after having scored on his first attempt.)
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.