Spain set up a potentially thrilling semi-final meeting with Germany but the European champions had to do it the hard way, requiring a lone second-half strike from David Villa to claim a 1-0 win over a resilient Paraguay 1-0 at Johannesburg’s Ellis Park. The goal saw Villa take an outright lead in the race for the adidas Golden Boot with five goals but the match was as much a tale of two failed spot-kicks, one for each side.
Vicente del Bosque fielded an unchanged line-up to that which defeated neighbours Portugal 1-0 four days ago. Conversely, Paraguay coach Gerardo Martino made six changes to the team which squeezed past Japan on penalties. Left out were his trio of misfiring strikers, with Roque Santa Cruz, Edgar Benitez and Lucas Barrios all consigned to the bench.
Both sides went into the match aiming for new heights. Spain clinched a top-four finish in 1950 in a round-robin final stage but they have never competed in a FIFA World Cup™ semi-final, while Paraguay had already achieved a first by progressing past the Round of 16.
If Spain were feeling complacent, then one of the new faces in La Albirroja's forward line, Jonathan Santana, provided an early wake-up call by forcing Iker Casillas into a save in the opening minute. Paraguay did not allow Spain to settle and successfully disrupted their normally crisp passing game during the first half. The in-form Villa only rarely found space on the left flank in the early stages, while at the other end Nelson Valdez looked dangerous whenever Paraguay made forays forward.
Spain midfielder Xavi took matters into his own hands on the half-hour mark with a wonderful snap-shot, the dipping volley from 25 yards clearing the crossbar with goalkeeper Justo Villar scrambling. Minutes later at the other end, Santana narrowly failed to connect with a diving header from a Claudio Morel cross. Valdez then had the ball in the net four minutes before the break only to see his effort disallowed for offside as Paraguay finished the first half in a positive frame of mind.
The second half commenced in similar fashion to the first period, with neither goalkeeper under threat until a remarkable period around the hour-mark. The drama began when Gerard Pique wrestled Oscar Cardozo to the ground as a corner, Paraguay's first of the night, was played in from the left. Cardozo looked set to give La Albirroja a stunning lead from the penalty spot against the European champions only for skipper Casillas to rescue his side with a superb diving save to his left.
Within 60 seconds, Antolin Alcaraz was deemed to have bundled over Villa in the penalty area and Spain had their own chance from the spot. Xabi Alonso buried his spot-kick but Spanish joy was shortlived, with a retake ordered for encroachment. This time Villar dived low to his left and parried Alonso’s effort, and Paraguay scrambled the rebound to safety.
Minutes later, Andres Iniesta hit a curling effort that was well blocked by Villar, and it was indeed to be the Barcelona midfielder who proved the difference in the decisive moment of the match seven minutes from time. Budweiser Man of the Match Iniesta made a driving run from midfield, teeing up Pedro, whose shot hit Villar's right-hand post before rebounding to Villa. The Spain No7 accepted the gift. Placing his effort against the left-hand post, the ball rebounded off the opposite post before eventually nestling into the net.
In the final minute, Casillas saved his side with a double block from Santa Cruz and Barrios, while Villa was similarly denied by the impressive Villar following a lightning counter-attack.