The Round of 16 draws to a close at South Africa 2010 with the mouth-watering meeting of Iberian neighbours Spain and Portugal, and what looks set to be an open encounter between Paraguay and Japan.
Despite their opening-match stumble against Switzerland, European champions Spain made their way through to the knockout phase, finishing top of their group in the process. They now find a Portugal team in their path who passed a stern test by surviving a tough section alongside Brazil and Côte d'Ivoire. That said, this was the last-16 tie that many expected and coaches Vicente del Bosque and Carlos Queiroz ought to have had plenty of time to plot the other's downfall.
In contrast, few could have predicted Italy’s woes in Group F, where Paraguay finished top despite having to do without their leading scorer in qualifying, Salvador Cabanas. Los Guaraníes now tackle a Japan side intent on reaching uncharted waters at this level by winning the second last-16 game between South American and Asian contenders at the 2010 FIFA World Cup™, Uruguay having previously edged past Korea Republic 2-1.
Paraguay-Japan, Tshwane/Pretoria, 16.00 (local time)
Spain-Portugal, Cape Town, 20.30 (local time)
The big game
The record books point to Spanish dominance, with the European champions having beaten Portugal three times and drawn once in four FIFA World Cup qualifiers. The most recent of those games may have come 60 years ago, but in 32 meetings overall A Selecção das Quinas have prevailed a mere five times, while suffering 15 defeats and recording 12 draws.
They must now attempt to reverse that trend against one of the strongest Spain line-ups of all time, although oddly enough their Iberian rivals have started to appear vulnerable of late, with their fluid one-touch play perhaps finally being deciphered by opposition coaches.
Del Bosque has had to sacrifice some of his team’s zest for the spectacular in favour of a more direct approach, as witnessed in their 2-1 win over Chile, but opposite number Queiroz will be confident of finding solutions. His troops emerged unscathed from the toughest section in the group phase boasting seven goals scored and none conceded, and will look to their ironclad defence and star forward Cristiano Ronaldo to make the difference.
The Real Madrid star harries defenders and creates space for his colleagues, and he will relish coming up against fellow Liga stars such as David Villa. Whatever happens, expect plenty of banter about this match around the Santiago Bernabeu and Camp Nou next season.
Gerardo Martino (PAR) v Takeshi Okada (JPN)
While his opposite number is a Japanese icon, Martino is an almost unknown quantity in his own country. The 47-year-old is one of the three Argentinian coaches who led teams to South Africa 2010, having had to move to Paraguay to implement his ideas after failing to win the reins to a top side in his homeland. His gamble clearly worked and, fresh from collecting nine trophies with Paraguay’s leading club sides, he was appointed national team coach in January 2007, since when he has focused on tight defence and rapid counter-attacks despite his side’s riches in attack.
As for Okada, the former international defender with 24 caps to his name first led Japan to France 1998 before returning to the job in December 2007. A clever tactician, the 53-year-old knows his team are unlikely to win a physical contest and likes them to play at pace, with passes directed into the space behind defenders, and full-backs moving up to help exploit his players’ strengths. Expect different approaches from two lesser-known coaches then, with one set to raise his profile by reaching the last eight.
What they said
"The most important thing is our tremendous solidarity. This team really is 11 guys who play together. That’s been the key to our good run, because for me that’s the most important thing in football," Daisuke Matsui, Japan midfielder.
El Guaje y El Niño: It could almost be the title of a Spanish fable, a story of friendship and understanding between two strikers – El Guaje (‘The Kid’ in Asturian) being 28-year-old David Villa and El Niño (‘The Child’ in Spanish) 26-year-old Fernando Torres. The duo boast no fewer than 65 goals between them for Spain, Villa having hit 41 and Torres 24, but finding room for both in the same line-up is no mean task. Coach Vicente del Bosque's solution has been to shift Villa out left and leave Torres to attack through the middle. The goals have nonetheless come from the new Barcelona recruit, with his Liverpool counterpart struggling for form as he continues his recovery from a knee operation. Yet despite that conundrum, Villa has not been urging Del Bosque to rethink his tactics. “We started out together,” said Villa. “We’re friends away from the game and you can see that on the pitch.” Music to his coach’s ears, no doubt.
Start as you mean to go on: The key to beating Portugal at the FIFA World Cup is simple: just avoid letting them score the first goal. The Lusitanians have broken the deadlock on 11 occasions in the global showcase and gone on to triumph each time, most recently putting Korea DPR to the sword in a 7-0 win. They do not tend to concede too often either, being the only team at South Africa 2010 to have recorded two goalless draws. Spain would be wise to take note.
Continental drift: For the first time in the history of the competition, there have been no ties pitting a European side against a South American rival in the Round of 16. Meetings between the cream of the two continents are a long-established staple of the FIFA World Cup, with 204 encounters producing 83 wins for CONMEBOL ambassadors, 73 for their UEFA counterparts and 48 draws. The saga will resume in the quarter-finals.