Spain limped through to their first World Cup semi-final with a late victory over Paraguay. David Villa scored with eight minutes remaining after both sides had earlier missed penalties within a minute of each other.
Jonathan Santana shot straight at Iker Casillas from the edge of the area in the first minute as Paraguay started brightly. Cristian Riveros headed wide at the near post from 10 yards after Victor Caceres crossed from the right. Xavi Hernandez came closest for Spain after 28 minutes, flicking up a pass from Joan Capdevila and volleying just over from 30 yards. Nelson Haedo Valdez had the ball in the net after 41 minutes but it was correctly ruled out for an offside against Oscar Cardozo. Haedo Valdez was onside when Edgar Barreto crossed but Cardozo had strayed and he jumped in the centre in an attempt to meet the cross before Haedo Valdez controlled and finished at the far post. In first half stoppage time, Haedo Valdez blasted off target after he had cut inside Carles Puyol as Paraguay broke.
The game suddenly sprung to life just before the hour mark. First, Paraguay were awarded a penalty after Gerard Pique pulled down Cardozo as a corner was played in. Cardozo stepped up to take the kick himself but his firm strike was held low down by Casillas to his left. Within a minute, Spain had their own penalty after Antolin Alcaraz brought down Villa in the box. Xabi Alonso scored the spot kick but was made to retake it due to encroachment. At the second time of asking, his shot was saved by Justo Villar diving low to his left. The drama was not over, with Villar seeming to bring down Fabregas as he went for the rebound but nothing was given, and Paulo da Silva blocked Sergio Ramos’s follow up on the line. Spain finally took the lead after 82 minutes through Villa. Pedro Rodriguez slotted past Villar but it came back off the post to Villa, who took a touch before finishing via both posts as the ball eventually nestled in the net. Paraguay were close to an equaliser in the 89th minute, with Casillas spilling Lucas Barrios’ shot before redeeming himself by saving Roque Santa Cruz’s follow up. Straight down the other end, Villar saved from Villa after he was fed by Pedro.
Spain struggled to get into the first half, unable to find any passing rhythm and easily frustrated by Paraguay. The Paraguayans were able to prevent Ramos from galloping forward from right-back, the main width in the Spanish setup. To find any width, Villa and Fernando Torres had to look to work the channels, leaving little presence in the box. With Paraguay having to do little defensive work on the flanks, they were able to pack the middle of the pitch with bodies and force Spain to try and work through them. Paraguay had started brightly in the opening minutes and looked like they might be adventurous going forward but they soon settled into a more destructive and patient game. They still managed to create the better of the first half’s few chances and could well have been ahead had Cardozo not jumped ahead of Haedo Valdez when he was offside.
Referee Carlos Batres made three quick decisions that could have proved costly to Spain in amongst all the penalty drama in the second half. First, he declined to send off Alcaraz despite the Paraguayan defender being the last man when he brought down Villa. It was a professional foul and should have seen the red card come out but instead Alcaraz escaped with yellow and Paraguay kept their full complement of players. Moments later, he forced Alonso to take his penalty again due to several players from both sides encroaching into the box. The same decision could have been given when Cardozo missed a minute earlier and was merely a referee being fussy on an issue that has no consistency at all from officials. To compound matters, once Alonso had missed the retake, Villar clearly brought Fabregas down as he looked to tuck away the rebound but this time there was no penalty.
Paraguay have proved a frustrating team to watch at this World Cup. They have been a side that you would wish to praise for their dogged determination in games against Italy and Spain, holding the holders to a draw and nearly achieving the same against the favourites for this year’s crown. At the same time, they have shown little attacking ambition, demonstrated by the failure of any of their strikers to find the net in five matches. Cardozo had the best chance yet from the penalty spot and would have been backed to score after his cool winning penalty in the shootout against Japan. Had he scored, there is every chance that Paraguay could have seen out the game, but it is hard to imagine they would have been popular semi-finalists with anyone.
Spain now face Germany in the semi-finals in Durban next Wednesday. On this display, the Germans will hardly be trembling in their boots but they will know the Spanish are capable of far more. Germany are a better team than the one Spain beat two years ago in the European Championship final but the core of the Spanish side have since achieved unprecedented success at club level with Barcelona. Paraguay frustrated Spain for 82 minutes with a narrow, defensive setup but it is hard to see the Germans adopting a similar approach as their game is all about attacking. Whether the German adventurousness will leave space for Spain to open them up remains to be seen, but both sides must play their natural game rather than trying to negate the opposition.
Paraguay – Villar – Veron, Da Silva, Alcaraz, Morel – Barreto, Santana, Caceres, Riveros – Haedo Valdez, Cardozo
Spain – Casillas – Ramos, Pique, Puyol, Capdevila – Alonso, Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets -Torres, Villa