World Cup Group H round-up - Spain top group despite early scare, along with impressive Chile
There was a decidedly Hispanic feel to the last of the eight World Cup groups, with Chile representing South America, Honduras from Central America, and the presence of the motherland herself in the form of European Champions Spain. Rounding off the group were Switzerland, who would make a brief but instant impact.
Chile and Honduras kicked off the action, with both harbouring ambitions of sneaking into the last 16. Much had been made of Chile finishing as runners-up in a strong South American qualifying section, and of Coach Marcelo Bielsa’s cavalier 3-1-3-3 formation. The Hondurans meanwhile, featuring at only their second World Cup finals, boasted something of a ‘golden generation’, with a smattering of players playing in Europe’s top leagues - most notably the Premier League’s Wilson Palacios and Maynor Figeuroa and Serie A’s David Suazo. Reinaldo Rueda’s team had, however, endured a nightmare preparation for the tournament, failing to win any of their warm up games and being plagued by an injury crisis that robbed them of several star players and hampered the fitness of Palacios and Suazo. Chile also had their injury concerns, as star striker Humberto Suazo missed their opening game, but they looked fine without him, tearing into Honduras from the outset and maintaining that tempo throughout against the unambitious Catrachos, who fielded 36 year-old Carlos Pavon as a lone striker. In the event Chile were somewhat unlucky to win by just one solitary, scrappy goal, Jean Beausejour forcing the ball over the line from Isla’s cross.
The sheer depth of talent Spain have at their disposal in all areas had seen them installed as firm favourites to win the competition, and sure enough, they dominated Switzerland in the early stages. However, for all that they controlled the game, they struggled to fashion any clear cut chances, and the Swiss gradually played their way into the game. Nevertheless, the football world was stunned when a calamitous misunderstanding between Gerard Pique and Iker Casillas allowed Gelson Fernandes the simplest of finishes to give Ottmar Hitzfeld’s well-organised, cautious team the lead. Both teams struck the woodwork in the second half, but Hitzfeld’s men held on to take all three points, leaving the European Champions shell-shocked.
It was very much attack versus defence as the second round of games got underway. Humberto Suazo returned for gung-ho Chile against resolute Switzerland. Things looked bleak for the Swiss when West Ham’s Valon Behrami was dismissed after just half an hour for an alleged elbow amidst some wildly erratic officiating. Switzerland’s 10-men were staunch, however, in their resistance to Chile’s rampaging attacks, and held out for long enough to set a new World Cup record for the most minutes without conceding a goal, having gone out of Germany 2006 without being breached at the back. The extra man would eventually prove telling however, as Chile’s Mark Gonzalez headed the game’s only goal to give Chile maximum points from two games.
Spain made changes for their must-win game with Honduras. The injured Andres Iniesta and ineffective David Silva were replaced by Jesus Navas and a half fit Fernando Torres as Vicente Del Bosque switched to a three man forward line, with David Villa shunted out wide on the left. Honduras again failed to show any attacking intent, and it wasn’t long before Villa gave the Spanish the lead with a marvellous solo goal. It was an eventful night for Barcelona’s new forward, as he doubled his and Spain’s tally with a deflected second, missed a penalty, and somehow escaped censure for slapping Emilano Izaguirre. While the Spanish ran out 2-0 winners, they were hugely wasteful in front of goal, leaving lingering doubts about their killer instinct.
Going into the final round of games, all four teams had a chance of qualifying. Spain and Chile both looked for an early goal, the latter dominating the early stages. However, a mistake by goalkeeper Bravo in racing out of his goal to clear a nothing ball straight to the feet of David Villa, who coolly knocked the ball into an empty net from 40 yards, broke the deadlock. Spain were rarely in danger after Iniesta doubled their lead, with Estrada dismissed for a trip on Fernando Torres in the build up to the goal.
Meanwhile, in Bloemfontein, both Switzerland and Honduras made changes to keep their hopes alive, but neither was prepared to gamble going forward to try and win the game, and the two played each other out of the tournament with a whimper of a goalless draw. Back in Pretoria, Chile rallied briefly with a deflected strike from Rodrigo Millar, but once it became clear that both teams were likely going through, the game effectively came to a standstill, and it finished 2-1. Spain, in spite of their opening game slip, went through as group winners to set up an all-Iberian encounter with Portugal in the last 16. Chile followed them to make it a clean sweep of South American teams to progress from the group stage, but have it all to do in the next round against the might of Brazil.