Those expecting a comfortable win for
Spain’s 4-2-2-2 formation is well known to us, with Xavi and Andres Iniesta forming a double act just as familiar as Lennon and McCartney (which is the more naturally gifted is a purely subjective matter). This presents a problem to any opposing Coach, with the fluidity of movement within the framework frequently rendering conventional defensive systems obsolete. That Martino went for a 4-1-3-2, with the back-from-suspension Victor Caceres operating as a screening midfielder was clearly with an eye on nullifying the threat from just behind David Villa and the out-of-sorts Fernando Torres. It also meant that the three players in front of him could get up in support of Oscar Cardozo and Nelson Valdez, who had been chosen in preference to Roque Santa Cruz and Lucas Barrios. Having seen his forward players isolated in the last game, Martino knew the folly of allowing it to happen in this one. For the first 45 minutes, the plan worked perfectly, with Spain looking like anything but themselves. Paraguay operated a dual tactic of pressing when their opponents had possession in their own half, but retaining shape once they crossed halfway, only closing down the man with the ball when danger beckoned. One of two things happened. Either a navy-shirted defender played a misplaced pass or they crossed halfway only for the attack to fizzle out due to disciplined defending. Although Xavi did superbly with a turn and volley just over, the best chances of the half probably fell to Paraguay, including a goal that was chalked off for offside. The television pundits were somewhat lopsided in their criticism of the Spanish at half-time. Sure, they had not played like we know they can, but a great deal of that is down to the efforts of their well-drilled and committed opponents.
The nagging question ahead of the second half was whether or not the Paraguayans had the ability to continue their aggressive pressing game, having played 120 minutes less than a week ago. For 15 minutes, we had more of the same, then a chain of events which would change the dynamics of everything. For what it is worth, Cardozo deserved another attempt at goal after the Spanish Armada that raided the box long before he struck the ball. If Xabi Alonso’s penalty a minute later was null and void, then so was the Benfica man’s fluffed effort. Then again, Alonso should have got a third crack at goal and another cameo in a soap opera that almost made EastEnders look realistic. Goalkeeper Justo Villar’s ankle tap on substitute Cesc Fabregas was so well-executed you expected Villa to step forward and play dummy half. Somehow it remained 0-0, but the dynamics of what was unfolding were changed irreparably. Spain were spurred on by this, especially as the man passing himself off as Torres was replaced with pleasant side-effects for Del Bosque and his side. Whether the Anfield goal machine is still injured or the victim of identity fraud is unclear. One thing we are sure of is that this is not the same player we have come to admire in the Premier League. His replacement by Fabregas was a definite upgrade for his side, while Paraguay appeared to burn out their remaining energy on the nervous tension of the previous few minutes. The game opened up, which was always going to suit one side more than the other. A goal was inevitable, and exhaustion proved to be an enabler when it came. Iniesta’s wizardry was made to look even better than it was, and Villa was on it in a flash. Precision pinball meant pain for Paraguay as you knew there was no way back. 120 minutes followed by 83 against arguably the most talented team on earth had caught up with them.
This may well be the hardest game Del Bosque and his side face in the tournament. Paraguay were like one of those awful spoiling fighters who maul, clinch and hold, then run away while pawing with the jab. They are virtually impossible to look good against, and did a brilliant job of playing the game on their terms. In these circumstances, Spain merely had to get the job done, and though they left it until the final round, the W in the relevant column is all the historians will look back upon. All that remains for Del Bosque is the selection headache over Torres, who as stated earlier is clearly either injured or somebody else masquerading as him. For Martino, he and his side can console themselves with the fact that it took one of the top two sides in the world to eliminate them. They got this far largely through organisation and hard work, their goalless draws with Japan and New Zealand where the lack of quality lies. Given the shortcomings of the talent pool at his disposal, maybe the quarter-finals is a high watermark of sorts, one for which all involved deserve enormous credit.