Spain reaches the final on team effort
JOHANNESBURG -- World Cup semifinals are often more about guts and tenacity than skill and attacking flair. It was fitting, then, that Spanish defender Carles Puyol emerged as the hero in his side's 1-0 win over Germany.
Without question, Spain's glittering array of talent means that Puyol often toils in the shadows of offensive players such as Andres Iniesta, David Villa and Xavi. Not so on this night. Puyol scored the game's only goal in the 73rd minute -- and superbly marshaled the Spanish defense -- to lead La Furia Roja to the World Cup final for the first time in their history.
It was a typically gritty strike, as the Barcelona defender flung himself at Xavi's corner kick to deliver a thumping header from 10 yards that left German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer with no chance.
Up to that point, the game at Durban Stadium had unfolded like so many other Spanish encounters in this tournament. Spain had dominated possession and managed to carve open the opposing defense a couple of times to get some clear looks on goal. It even succeeded in getting fullbacks Joan Capdevila and Sergio Ramos into the attack. But a combination of effective defending by Germany, fine goalkeeping from Neuer and some wasteful finishing from the likes of David Villa, Pedro and even Puyol kept the game scoreless.
Yet despite not finding a way past Neuer until Puyol's heroics, Spain's ownership of the ball had its benefits, as it served to cut off the oxygen to Germany's potent counterattack. Granted, Spain had a scare in the 69th minute when Spanish goalkeeper Iker Casillas saved substitute Toni Kroos' first-time effort. But those moments were few, and Spain's clever approach work helped prevent Germany from establishing an attacking rhythm for much of the game.
Of course, there was another reason Germany became Spanish prisoners. The suspension of midfielder Thomas Müller proved to be a huge loss for Die Mannschaft, as his precision on the ball and quickness off it were sorely missed. Replacement Piotr Trochowski was rarely impactful, and while Kroos provided a spark off the bench, it wasn't enough to make up for Müller's overall dynamism. The fact that Müller incurred his suspension for a rather harsh caution for a handball in the quarterfinals will no doubt leave the Germans muttering to themselves.
But that complaint would serve to detract from the fact that Spain was the better side on the evening, delivering another solid performance. Ever since its opening game -- a 1-0 defeat to Switzerland -- Spain has made hard work of almost every game. Only its group stage win over Honduras was by more than one goal. But being involved in such tight contests clearly benefited La Furia Roja on this night. They knew precisely how to manage the game, stayed patient as they always do and rode a stingy defense that has conceded only two goals in the entire tournament. The fact that Pedro and Villa squandered chances to put the game away late in the match couldn't take the shine off Spain reaching the World Cup final.
In the final, Spain will take on a Netherlands side with its own history of falling short in the World Cup, guaranteeing that this tournament will crown a first-time champion. For Spain to prevail, it likely will require another staunch defensive effort by Puyol and the rest of the back line, even if the spotlight shines on someone else.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.