We will rise to biggest occasion of all, vows Villa as Spain rejoice

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The Independent Football

No words were forthcoming late on Wednesday night from the matchwinner whom the Spanish press were delighted to discover yesterday had immediately been christened "King Carles" by the British.

It is just not the habit of Carles Puyol, the son of a humble baker, to stop for the foreign press in the mixed zones where his multilingual compatriots stop and cruise into smooth English. The man born 35 years ago in the Pyrenean town of La Pobla de Segur, known to supporters as "Lionheart" or "Tarzan" and described by his team-mate David Villa yesterday as El Tiburon ("The Shark"), has not travelled through the football jungle in the way of so many of his colleagues.

When the Barcelona president Joan Laporta posited the idea of selling him after the 2002 World Cup to settle huge debts run up by a previous regime at the Catalan club, Puyol handled the situation impressively, saying that he would go if that was what was required to help turn the club around – a €15m (around £10m then) move to Manchester United, Arsenal or Milan was being mentioned – but sounding genuine when adding that he preferred to stay.

Laporta, fearing a backlash from a club membership that had already taken the defender to their hearts, opted to find another way of getting money in.

So he has stayed at the club where Louis van Gaal drafted him into the first-team squad and gave him his league debut in 1999, gradually gravitating from full-back, his more natural position, to the centre of defence, from where he has come to exert so much more influence on what goes on around him. The same has applied to his contribution with the national side, which in the Moses Mabhida Stadium on Wednesday added up to a lot more than the decisive goal – only his third in 89 appearances – in the mesmerising defeat of Germany

"Clearly, to score from a corner kick against Germany is tough," said Puyol's co-defender Joan Capdevila yesterday. "Carles did it so well since these games are decided by the smallest details."

Joachim Löw was certainly baffled as to how two of his men could have failed to pick up Puyol's run, as they did in the first half when a thunderous header from a Xavi cross flew over. But that was just part of it. Puyol might be vulnerable to pace in the same way as Jamie Carragher was in England's defence – Capdevila cleared up after Mesut Ozil turned him – but like Carragher compensates by his reading of the game. He can be quick on the offensive, is better in the air than he sometimes gets credit for and is a clean tackler: it was Spain's conviction in his anchoring role in the defensive line which allowed them to flood the midfield and play such a high line in the semi-final. The formation was more 4-1-4-1 than 4-2-3-1 and Germany found themselves swamped.

Puyol's set-piece goal was clearly not a coincidence, either. "We have been working all through the World Cup on set-pieces," Pepe Reina revealed after the match. "The small details can make all the difference and that is what happened." It was a disclosure that suggested German self-confidence had rather allowed them to view Spain too one-dimensionally.

Villa, for once not on the scoresheet, added: "We've shown that in the big moments we've risen to the occasion. It's the best game we've played. We deserved to score more but a Puyol goal put us in the final and we're exultant."

But, of course, it was the rediscovery of the nation's renowned passing game which Spain was rejoicing about. "That is the philosophy that brought us this far, to here," is how Reina defined it. "We have to be loyal to that. It is our secret. We know each other by memory and we don't panic because in a World Cup the games are really close and we have to be patient, be patient and keep trying to find the space. We did it at the end."

There was also surprise among the winning side at Germany's failure to break out and press the Spanish, the absence of a back-up plan. "I thought they were very defensive," reflected Xabi Alonso. "We thought they would attack more than they did. Really, they just waited to try and catch us on the counter-attack." Andres Iniesta went as far as to say that "Germany were scared of giving us any space – you could see that from the outset."

The pre-match suggestions, not entirely dismissed by the self- confident Löw, that this German side is better than the early 1970s team were simply not borne out. Where was the single moment of wizardry to match Bernd Hölzenbein – he of the 20-yard run into the Dutch area to win a penalty in the 1974 final – or the great Munich matchwinner, Gerd Müller?

However, Löw's side have gone out with the wellspring of domestic belief intact. Bild plastered its front page yesterday with a picture of the devastated midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger and the words: "The dream is over!" But it added: "Chin up, boys! So we'll take the cup in four years." Die Welt also looked ahead to Germany's fourth title, predicting on its front page: "54, 74, 90 – 2014 ..."

Spain have more immediate considerations in the shape of Holland on Sunday, and acknowledge that they enter the game as favourites. "There is a lot of pressure on us because we won Euro 2008," Reina conceded. "We have always been one of the favourites. Now we are favourites once again."

As of last night, communication with his Liverpool team-mate Dirk Kuyt had been one-way. "I have already received a message [from him]," Reina said. "I have not answered him yet but I will. I heard from him before and after the game. He wished us luck. Hopefully on Sunday he won't be that happy."

For Puyol, Soccer City on Sunday will probably be where he takes his last World Cup bow, as he mulls international retirement. The only point of contention now for his team-mates seems to be which fish or animal to compare him to. "He arrived like a young wild boar and scored," said Alonso.

"Let's hope he scores again and gives us another win," said Villa. "No one deserves that more."

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