The balance between Europe and South America swung back in the former's favour last night as Spain joined Germany and Holland in the last four of the World Cup with Uruguay.
For a while in Johannesburg the Spanish had been in danger of following Brazil and Argentina out of the door at this tumultuous quarter-final stage after an extraordinary period of three minutes in which both goalkeeper-captains saved a penalty, and Spain should have been awarded a second one.
All the drama occurred after Spain replaced a suffering Fernando Torres, whose performance had barely merited the 55 minutes he was allowed. David Villa, who had shown his team-mate the way by scoring in the last three games, had few chances to continue that run until the 82nd minute, when he added a fifth goal in four matches to become the tournament's leading scorer and move to within one of Raul's national record.
So in Durban on Wednesday Spain will cross swords again with the Germans, whom they defeated to win the European Championship two summers ago. They may yet become the first team to win a World Cup after losing their opening game, but at present they are a less fluent side than the one that charmed Austria and Switzerland in 2008.
Paraguay, one of the more negative teams here, were able to frustrate them so comprehensively that Justo Villar's save from Xabi Alonso's retaken penalty was his first of the game. It came after an hour of undistinguished football.
The Paraguayans even had a goal narrowly disallowed just before the interval and Iker Casillas, having kept out Oscar Cardozo's penalty, was required to make a fine double save in the last few minutes.
Having conceded only a single goal in four previous games – one of which went to extra-time – Paraguay again withdrew into two lines of four at the slightest hint of danger, negating the swift, short passing that is the preferred option of Vicente del Bosque's team.
In the 40th minute, Casillas was beaten by Nelson Valdez, preferred to Roque Santa Cruz in attack, but the assistant referee's flag went up, presumably against Cardozo, who had been active in attempting to flick on a header.
Torres, without a goal in the tournament, again looked out of sorts and was a prime contender to be substituted as Spain continued to struggle. Sure enough, 10 minutes into the second half, he was jogging dispiritedly to the dug-out, to be replaced by Cesc Fabregas.
Suddenly the game flared into life with a penalty to each side in the space of three minutes. The Guatemalan referee Carlos Batres rightly decided that Gerard Pique was blatantly holding back Cardozo at a corner but Casillas saved Cardozo's kick . It should have been retaken as at least three Spanish players were encroaching in the area.
Instead Batres gave a second penalty, in the next attack, for Antolin Alcaraz's push on Villa. This time he decided, harshly, that there was encroachment and ordered Alonso to retake his kick after he had scored comfortably. Villar parried the second effort, then clearly fouled Fabregas as he went to knock in the rebound but he got away with the challenge.
With extra-time looming, Spain finally broke through to reach their first World Cup semi-final. The substitute Pedro hit a post and from the rebound Villa's shot struck both posts before crossing the line.
Even then, Casillas had to save the day by denying Roque Santa Cruz, who had come on as a substitute. The right team had won, but not in the manner they would have wished. "A very tough, uncomfortable match," Del Bosque said.
Bookings: Spain: Pique, Busquets. Paraguay: Alcaraz, Caceres, Morel, Santana.
Referee: Carlos Batres (Guatemala)
Man of the match: Villa
Match rating: 7/10Reuse content