Spain summon a decisive power surge to light up their route to the final
Germany 0 Spain 1
Thursday 08 July 2010
It was the night's supreme irony that an agricultural looking centre half should have barged his way into the penalty box, flowing locks trailing behind him in the evening breeze, to thump in the header which cemented a 1-0 win.
If this sounds like 1970s Arsenal, then what we actually observed last night was something more akin to 1970s Holland because just when the purgatory of the last month suggested that Spain's magical football artistry had vanished without trace, it was rediscovered. A set-piece clinched the game but a masterpiece of precision and patience won it.
In a tournament of constant revisionism, where reputations have been lost as fast as they were earned, it emerged that Germany really have not put such a great distance between themselves and the rest of the continent. Against the chaos of Argentina and England, they flourished. When it came to a packed and busy Spanish midfield playing precisely the same divine football they had when defeating Joachim Löw's side by the same scoreline in the final of the 2008 European Championships in Vienna, it was a different story.
Löw put the defeat down to German "inhibition" though that would be to imply that there was actually something his midfield – where Bastian Schweinsteiger was too busy defending to think about a break-out – could have done against the corralled ranks of Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Xabi Alonso and Pedro. It was inspiration, not inhibition, which did for England's conquerors.
Pedro is a name worth lingering on because Vicente del Bosque's decision to give Barcelona's 22-year-old a start only 48 days after making his full debut for the nation in one of the warm up games and to drop Fernando Torres to the bench was a huge decision and a brave one which must take its place among the reasons why Spain will be playing in their first World Cup final three days from now.
Torres, the matchwinner who breezed past Philipp Lahm so easily in that Vienna final, is the player whose totemic presence had seemed to transcend the facts of his desultory tournament on this of all nights. But Del Bosque's decision reflected a perverse truth: that Spain have two of the finest strikers in the world and yet have never managed to get them working together. It was after Villa was injured in the 2008 semi-final that Torres returned to claim the prize.
It did not take long for that piece of judgement to pay off. Pedro was the individual who offered the earliest evidence that those who nurtured hopes that the style known in Spain by the vernacular tiqui-taka (pass and move) was still alive and well could rest easy.
Drifting between the lines, Pedro had, within ten minutes, beaten Lahm around the outside, sent David Villa through from the opposite flank for the first clear-cut opportunity of the evening and even stopped to juggle at one stage. Del Bosque had played Löw at his own game by introducing a young talent of such fearlessness, who had consigned Thierry Henry to the bench at Barcelona last season. Löw's young guns had lost their ammunition, though. The absence of suspended Thomas Müller as a force on the right was felt hard, but Mesut Ozil has not maintained the momentum of the group stage.
Not that this engagement was one-sided or predictable. Though the bumpy state of the Durban pitch did not lend itself to the quick passing game, Xabi and Iniesta played like this was a homecoming, with the space denied to them elsewhere in this tournament. But would Spain cash in themselves and puncture the German defence? Or, as Franz Beckenbauer had said of the opposition before this match "play, play, play and after the 90 minutes they haven't scored." Curiously, Puyol was one of the few men with the power to change that prognosis. When one of Alonso's half dozen imperious cross-field passes reached Iniesta, who crossed from the right, Spain look set to lead but this was a header Puyol put over.
As the evening settled, with Germany poised to break out of a defensive position at any moment, you feared for the evening's artists. When Ozil rounded Puyol as the first half wore on, Joan Capdevila came to the rescue and when Sergio Ramos put in a clumsy challenge on Ozil, just outside the area, shortly before half time, the referee helped, by waving play on.
And that is the kind of deadlock the game was in as it entered its last third. The two German banks of four were looking impenetrable when Spain finally created some daylight – Pedro latched onto Alonso's short ball to send in a shot Manuel Neuer did well to save. Then, in the next phase of play, an immaculate ball sent Iniesta free down the left to deliver a fizzing low cross across the six-yard box which just evaded Villa's reach at the far post.
Villa was the one who was struggling in Spain's new formation, deprived of the wide right role in which he has flourished in the tournament. Germany might have made him rue his miss had not Toni Kroos, on for Piotr Trochowski, failed to get power on a shot from Lukas Podolski's cross and allowed Iker Casillas to save.
And then Puyol stepped up. He is only 5ft 10ins but the power with which he arrived to meet Xavi's 75th-minute corner almost sent Pique into orbit, when he happened to be standing in his Barcelona team-mate's way. Podolski was correctly positioned on the goalline to block the header but he might as well have been in the stands.
There was still time for Pedro to commit a sin which Torres, on for Villa, will be reminding him of today when – sent racing through by Xavi – he had so much time to compose himself that he glanced right for a flag as he made his way. He didn't look left for Torres, who was positioned to score. But it was a solitary glitch. Spain were home and will take some beating.
Germany (4-2-3-1): Neuer; Lahm, Mertesacker, Friedrich, Boateng (Jansen, 52); Schweinsteiger, Khedira (Gomez, 80); Trochowski (Kroos, 62), Ozil, Podolski; Klose.
Spain (4-2-3-1): Casillas; Ramos, Piqué, Puyol, Capdevila; Busquets, Alonso (Marchena, 90); Iniesta, Xavi, Pedro (Silva, 85); Villa (Torres, 81).
Referee V Kassai (Hungary).
Spain's final frontier
As with England, Spain's record at World Cup finals is one of underachievement and frustration. This year marks the first time that Spain have advanced past the World Cup quarter-finals with the tournament in a knockout format.
In 12 previous appearances, 'La Roja' reached the last eight four times, most recently in Asia in 2002, when they were controversially eliminated by hosts South Korea, with two seemingly legal goals disallowed.
Similar early departures came in 1934, 1986 and 1994, though they did reach the last four at the 1950 World Cup. That tournament, held in Brazil and the only finals where the champion was determined by the winner of a final group, saw Spain earn a place in the final pool along with Brazil, Sweden and Uruguay – they could only finish bottom.
Success came two years ago at the European Championship, again against Germany, and changed the country's mentality, giving the Spanish belief that they can finally end their long wait for a World title.
Man for man marking...
Brave early save from David Villa set the goalkeeper up for another solid performance. 8/10
Had his hands full defending. Was unable to set up as many attacks as he likes to. 6
Criticised in some previous games but kept the dangerous Villa quiet. 7
A steadying influence as usual alongside his partner, using all his vast experience. 7
New Man City full-back was tested to the limit and substituted early in the second half. 5
Found Spain's passing in the midfield kept him occupied. 6
Unenviable task keeping up with the Spanish passing whirligig but he kept at it. 6
Thomas Müller's replacement worked hard down the right before being replaced. 6
One of the stars of the tournament but not as influential as Germany needed him to be. 6
Another who failed to live up to previous billing with his team on the defensive. 6
Few chances to edge closer to Ronaldo's World Cup scoring record. 6
Substitutes Marcel Jansen (for Boateng 52) Did better than Boateng 7, Tony Kroos (for Trochowski 62) Faulted for goal 5, Mario Gomez (for Khedira 80).
Had to make few touches for an hour, then a fine save from Kroos. 7
Careful not to allow Podolski too much rope while attacking in usual style. 7
Kept Klose under, er, close wraps while playing some good long passes. 7
Controlled Spain's back line to good effect and produced a memorable header to score. 8
Saw off Trochowski and had time for some threatening sorties down the left. 7
The least glamorous role of the midfield, which he performed dutifully. 7
Given more freedom than in his Liverpool days, hit some good shots and passes. 7
Wandered all over the pitch and was always available to make or take a pass. 8
Even more metronomic than club-mate Iniesta, the pass master was on his game again. 8
Brought in for Fernando Torres but played all along front line to good effect. 8
Tournament's leading scorer was played through middle with less scope than usual. 7
Substitutes Fernando Torres (for Villa 81) n/a, David Silva (for Pedro 85) n/a, Carlos Marchena (for Alonso 90) n/a.
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