FOX Soccer Exclusive
Spain strolls into World Cup quarterfinals
It was a magnificent display of football to close out the knockout stages and send the World Cup into its first break as teams prepare for the quarterfinal stage.
The evening matchup between Spain and Portugal was billed as the match of the knockout round. It turned into a coronation.
This was a magisterial performance from a Spanish side that finally began to hit its stride. Spain’s loss to lowly Switzerland in the group stages is forgotten, as is the timidity and errant passing that seemed to bedevil them even against lesser opponents like Honduras and Chile. While key striker Fernando Torres remains unable to give his side the full 90 minutes, Spain again demonstrated that it has so many players who can change a game that they almost don’t need him.
Against a very compelling Portuguese team, Spain closed down the passing lanes, made Cristiano Ronaldo disappear, and finally battered its way through to hit the back of Eduardo’s net. That it took a team that can make the ball dance and weave as they do over an hour to finally score is a testament to the real quality of the Portuguese side. Ricardo Carvalho, the Ports’ man of the match, blocked a dizzying 10 shots. As he does for Chelsea, the central defender did the hard clean up Tuesday night, largely stifling the creativity of Andres Iniesta and giving precious cover as Sergio Ramos and David Villa bore down both flanks.
Eduardo was tested in just the first minute when Torres showed a bit of his old acceleration. Villa tested the 'keeper just three minutes later from the flank, trying to squeeze the ball in at the near post. In total, Eduardo went on to make five game-saving stops
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But it was hardly one-way traffic. Iker Casillas got in trouble early when Fabio Coentrao tore down the center of the field with Ronaldo unimpeded to feed Tiago, forcing the Real Madrid keeper to palm the ball into the air. Chasing behind, Hugo Almeida almost was able to head it home, but Casillas recovered in time.
Then, showing some of the nerves that have bedeviled him this Cup, Casillas fumbled a freekick in the 27th after Ronaldo sent in a swerver, but the Spanish defense was there to head it to safety.
After the break Spain began to get on top, with Fernando Llorente replacing Torres at the hour mark and immediately forcing Eduardo into action with his point-blank header on nearly his first touch of the night. That was well palmed away, but the effort signaled that Spain was close to a breakthrough.
It came two minutes later, and in classic Spanish style. Iniesta worked the ball through the forest of Portuguese defenders then laid it left to Xavi Hernandez. Xavi simply back-heeled to ball a charging Villa, who saw his first shot stopped by Eduardo, but also saw the rebound fall to him. He clanged it off the underside of crossbar and into the back of the net.
Portugal never recovered, having to commit so many men to just pry the ball loose from Spain’s possession game, that when the Portuguese got the ball, they had little to no support up top. Credit Xabi Alonso and Xavi for that steel; they made sure every ball down the gut was either sent forward to Iniesta or disposed of, and in the final 15 minutes, Portugal barely got a look without one of those two greeting them at the halfway line.
Portugal would suffer a final indignity when Ricardo Costa was ejected with just minutes to spare for an errant arm on Joan Capdevila. It was perhaps a harsh sending off by Hector Baldassi, but if it was a mistake, it was his only one of the night. Fittingly for such a great contest, the refereeing was superb.
It’s also fitting that this match followed the afternoon’s display. For the entire football world must be abuzz tonight following the Paraguay-Japan clash with one, burning question: Was this the worst soccer match ever played?
Turgid, constipated, negative — these adjectives are insufficient to describe a match between two teams so desperate not to lose that they ruthlessly smothered any creativity and life. If football truly is the beautiful game, then this match was the inept paint-by-number canvas at the tag sale.
These two might have just spared us all the trouble and taken the penalties before the game started. Getting to the shootout seemed to be Paraguay’s entire game-plan, anyway, as they did nothing to suggest they cared about winning the game in regulation. Japan was fractionally more positive, but they were equally fearful and played a game as unappealing as a week-old ham sandwich.
Neither team had confidence. Neither team had anyone who could score a goal. Both coaches looked as uncertain as the game.
And if Yuichi Komano hadn’t hit the crossbar with Japan’s third shot of the shootout, both teams might still be there, still boring the under-capacity crowd at Loftus Versfeld. Mercifully, Oscar Cardozo sunk what proved to be the winner, and the ones who did attend got to go home.
Nada. It’s the first day off of the World Cup. Check back with FoxSoccer.com the next two days for extensive analysis and previews of the upcoming quarterfinals.