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For Spain Fernando Torres was handed a huge vote of confidence by manager Vicente Del Bosque by keeping his place despite a ring rusty campaign. He had looked well off the pace so far in this tournament following a lengthy lay off after a knee operation but Del Bosque ignored the critics who suggested he should be dropped. The Spanish were unchanged from their 2-1 victory against Chile. They lined up in their customary 4-3-3 formation with Torres playing the targetman upfront and Villa and Andres Iniesta given a free license to float either side of him. Xavi controlled the play in the middle of the park with the knowledge that Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso were available to look after the back four.
Portugal made a couple of changes to the side which played out a drab 0-0 draw with Brazil in their final group game. Simao Sabrosa and Hugo Almeida were recalled to bolster their attack, while Real Madrid center-half Pepe was retained in a defensive midfield role at the expense of Pedro Mendes. In Bruno Alves and Ricardo Carvalho, Portugal had perhaps the finest central defensive parings in the tournament as they were the only side yet to concede a goal.
As soon as referee Hector Baldassi blew the opening whistle Torres looked in the mood to repay the confidence shown by the manager, he fired a testing curler in the direction of goal, but Eduardo was just about equal to it as he stretched to make the save. Strike partner David Villa was also quick in on the act as he drove a shot in from the left side as the European champions hit the early ground running enjoying plenty of good possession. A few minutes later Villa again stung the palms of Eduardo with another fiercely struck shot as he came in off the left wing. The first 10 minutes were a joy to watch particularly after the tense but ultimately drab encounter served up by the Japanese and the Paraguayans earlier in the day. Torres in particular was looking much sharper than his previous outings and he again threatened with a delightful chip which went agonisingly over the crossbar from a neatly worked short corner routine. For all of Carlos Queiroz' brave comments before the match saying his side were going to go for it, it was clear from the opening exchanges that Portugal were going to attempt to keep their defensive solidity in a bid to frustrate their Iberian neighbours.
Portugal looked to have weathered the early Spanish inquisition and on 20 minutes they nearly hit back with the opening goal. Full-back Fabio Coentrao, arguably Portugal's best player on show at the World Cup went on one of those rampaging runs down the left flank and set-up Tiago, whose long range effort brought about a clumsy save from Iker Casillas. The ball looped straight up, and the Real Madrid keeper was forced into a second save, punching the ball clear under pressure from Hugo Almeida. Ronaldo was in his preening â€˜hand on hips' mode protesting any type of contact as he went to ground too early on at least two occasions. His side needed more from him if they were going to threaten the Spanish defence as the game struggled to match the early tempo. His only contribution of note was a well struck long distance free kick which Casillas did well to save as the Jabulani ball swerved and dipped unexpectedly.
With 6 minutes left in the first half,Â Portugal had a great chance to break the deadlock, but Almeida couldn't get his header on target from an excellent cross by Simao. It was the Portuguese who were finishing the half stronger as Tiago then went close with a header. As the first half drew to a close it looked clear to most observers that very little separated these two sides and extra time and penalties may well be called into play for the second time today.
The restart saw the match return to its early routine, with the Spanish having the lion's share of possession without managing to create clear cut chances for the hungry Villa and Torres. It was Portugal who came closest to breaking the deadlock following a rapier like counter attack. Hugo Almeida's cross took a wicked deflection off Carles Puyol, and for a moment it looked like the ball was going to arch over Casillas and into the net but thankfully for the Real Madrid goalkeeper it floated just wide. With a little over 30 minutes remaining both managers rang the changes with Torres once again being taken off despite his initial bright start. The Liverpool striker was replaced by Basque striker Fernando Llorente while Portugal sent on Danny for Hugo Almeida. The change almost brought about immediate dividends for Del Bosque with Llorente's diving header pushed out by Eduardo.
Suddenly the Spanish were looking threatening once again as Villa curled a lovely shot which just missed the right hand corner. It seemed the recently departed Valenica man had now had enough sightings of goal as he finally breached this incredibly sturdy Portuguese defence on 63 minutes. His 4th goal of the tournament came after he was brilliantly released after some clever interplay between Andres Iniesta and Xavi on the edge of the box. Eduardo pulled off a great reaction save to deny Villa, but the rebound fell kindly for the super striker, who dinked the ball over the line with the help of the crossbar. It was another goal for the record Spanish goal scorer which underlined his big game credentials. On this form he is the most deadly striker in world football today.
The goal seemed to unleash wave after wave of Spanish attacks and with Portugal finally coming out of their shell, the likes of Xavi were finally able to dictate proceedings with the freedom of the pitch at their disposal. Sergio Ramos was denied by a brilliant save from Eduardo after another marauding run from right back. Ronaldo was increasingly a peripheral figure as the Portuguese superstar just could not see enough of the ball to threaten the now comfortable looking Spanish defence. Portugal's misery was complete when with just a minute remaining of the match, Ricardo Costa was given a straight red card for an off the ball incident involving Joan Capdevila. The replays indicated the Spanish defender had made a huge meal of the challenge and it left a sour taste in the mouth as the decision looked very harsh on the Portuguese defender.
Spain now take on Paraguay knowing that they have a great opportunity to reach their first ever World Cup semi final (they finished 4th in 1950 in a league format). With Villa in this form it would be a brave man to bet against it. Portugal and Ronaldo in particular, never really seemed to get going in this tournament. Yes they thrashed North Korea but without getting the best from their captain, and apart from that game, failed to score in any other.
The Teams :
SPAIN: Casillas, Ramos, Pique, Puyol, Capdevila, Alonso (Marchena, 90+3') , Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets, Torres (Llorente, 58'), Villa (Pedro, 88')
PORTUGAL: Eduardo, Alves, Costa, Carvalho, Coentrao, Meireles, Pepe (Mendes, 72') , Tiago, Ronaldo, Simao(Liedson, 72') Sabrosa, Almeida (Danny, 58')
Scoreline: Spain 1 Portugal 0 (Villa 63')
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