Spain were fast out of the blocks and enjoyed early success cutting in from the left. First Torres curled from the corner of the area in the first minute and Eduardo had to tip it away. Villa replicated the Torres effort two minutes later and again Eduardo pushed away the shot. Villa tried again in the seventh minute, this time shooting to the near post where Eduardo blocked. Torres fired just over from an angle after 12 minutes after Xavi played a short corner to him. Iker Casillas had to punch away under his crossbar under pressure from Hugo Almeida after he could only push Tiago’s 25 yard shot behind him following a fine Portuguese move. Casillas then made a mess of Cristiano Ronaldo’s long freekick, scooping it up in the air before Gerard Pique cleared. Almeida should have put Portugal in front on 39 minutes, putting a free header wide from Raul Meireles’ delivery with Ronaldo waiting behind him. Tiago headed wide of the opposite post two minute before half time after Fabio Coentrao’s cross.
Almeida tried to dink a cross to Ronaldo six minutes into the second half and it hit Carles Puyol on the knee, bouncing just wide of the far post. Having just come on, Spain substitute Fernando Llorente had a glorious chance on the hour, diving to head Sergio Ramos’s cross six yards out but putting it straight at Eduardo. Moments later, Villa curled just wide from 25 yards before putting Spain ahead after 62 minutes. Several passes were exchanged around the edge of the box before Xavi backheeled Andres Iniesta’s pass into Villa’s path. Villa’s first shot was blocked by Eduardo but he chipped the rebound back over the keeper. It was almost two 20 minutes from time when Ramos cut in from the right and shot but Eduardo just turned it away from the bottom corner. Eduardo then had to tip a Villa shot away that was headed for the top corner. Llorente had another chance with his head in the 87th minute, steering just wide from 15 yards. Costa saw red late on for using an elbow on Capdevila in the Spanish area but replays were unclear as to how much contact was actually made.
The first half followed the same pattern for long spells, with Spain playing long strings of passes together until Portugal intercepted and launched a fast counter attack. The Spanish were finding it hard to break through the Portuguese defence which was superbly organised and compact. Spain enjoyed plenty of early shots but they were all coming from the edge of the area rather than creating opportunities in front of goal. Portugal had less of the play but were the side getting balls into the box, with Almeida’s header the best chance either team had in the first half. With Eduardo virtually flawless in the Portuguese goal, his opposite number Casillas was looking uncharacteristically nervy. He was extremely fortunate that he spilled Ronaldo’s freekick to a Spanish teammate, looking like he knew he would not hold it before it arrived even though it was not one of the Portugal captain’s finest efforts.
Ronaldo started from the right of the Portugal attack, pitting him against Capdevila who is viewed as a potential weak link in the Spanish defence. It was from the left that Portugal enjoyed more success, with Coentrao continuing his excellent World Cup at left-back and Almeida and Meireles both getting balls in from that flank. There was more space to be found in behind Ramos than Capdevila, with the Spain right-back steaming forward at will. It was somewhat curious that Carlos Queiroz did not move Ronaldo out on to the left, particularly with his ability to cut in on to his right foot to shoot. When Portugal did make a change, it was to bring Danny on for Almeida with Ronaldo pushed through the middle. Liedson replaced Simao for the last 18 minutes but initially Ronaldo was kept isolated through the middle before being moved back to his original posting on the right.
It was not until the introduction of Llorente in place of Torres that Spain began to dominate completely. Torres had yet another quiet game at the World Cup, his early effort from the left the highlight of his contribution. Llorente offered Spain a more alert target in the box, although he lacked the finish he needed when Ramos served him up a six-yard header on a plate. Villa looked dangerous again coming in from the left, but could surely do more damage played as the main striker. With a wealth of potential candidates to play from the left, there is little reason to station Villa there with Torres so out of form. Pedro was the latest to be given a short stint as a substitute for Spain, his three minutes plus stoppage time hardly enough time to show why he has been Barcelona’s breakthrough star this season. Vicente del Bosque must now decide whether to persevere with Torres, to give Llorente a start, or to free up Villa and bring in Pedro, David Silva or Juan Mata on the left.
Spain now face what should be a straight forward game on paper against Paraguay on Saturday evening in Johannesburg. The Paraguayans look a functional side and are capable of strong defensive organisation, but they are not as good at the back as the Portugal side are that Spain have just seen off. The Spanish were the side on the front foot throughout tonight’s game but had to be patient against the Portuguese barricade, and they will benefit from the same characteristics against Paraguay who will likely line up with two banks of four for Spain to break through. Iniesta looked to play in the space between the Portugal midfield and defence and he could be the key to breaking through the Paraguay system in the quarter-finals.