Spain wins cat-and-mouse game

Spain's David Villa celebrates his goal against Portugal on Tuesday. (REUTERS/Oleg Popov)

Spain's David Villa celebrates his goal against Portugal on Tuesday. (REUTERS/Oleg Popov)

MORRIS DALLA COSTA, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:26 PM ET

CAPE TOWN -- Spain produced when it had to.

But to call it the kind of performance that would strike fear into the likes of Argentina, Germany or Brazil is wishful thinking.

It needs to play better.

One of the heavy favourites to win the World Cup, Spain disposed of its tough Iberian neighbours Portugal 1-0 on Tuesday. But while it controlled the ball and the game, it was by no means the kind of artful performance that produced chances on goal.

Portugal managed several of its own chances and near the end of the game pushed forward for the tie. The Spanish were playing a dangerous game. A tie would have taken into extra time with both David Villa and Fernando Torres being substititued.

Villa the sniper, the deadly finisher, is the difference maker for Spain. He and midfielder Andres Iniesta are the reasons Spain was able to handle Portugal and will be the ultimate barometer in how far Spain goes in this tournament.

Portugal had done a relatively good job on the two of then until it relaxed in the 63rd minute, allowing Iniesta to orchestrate a six-pass movement that ended with a touch of class.

Villa took Xavi Hernandez' side-heel pass and struck a left-footed shot that was saved by Portuguese goalkeeper Eduardo. He then fired the rebound with his right foot off the underside of the crossbar and into the net.

"It was one of my best goals because it got us through to the next round," Villa said. "Keep scoring so we can keep going."

He'd better because so far he's the only one who seems capable of doing it.

Torres, his striker partner, was substituted for early in the half. Torres doesn't look 100%. He can't seem to generate the kind of quickness and agility that has made him so dangerous.

The expectation was that Portugal would provide a stiff test for Spain and it did. But Portugal needed to get more from its best player Cristiano Ronaldo but again, Ronaldo did not produce on the big stage.

His contribution was a free kick that bounced off the chest of Spanish keeper Iker Casillas in the first half. After that, he was non-existant. In the first 10 minutes, Ronaldo went down three times and was ignored by Argentinian referee Harold Baldassi.

Ronaldo refused to speak to the media as he left the stadium.

"The match was extremely intense," Spain manager Vicente del Bosque said. "In the second half, we were better than Portugal. We had greater depth in our play, and we controlled the game very well."

While Spain didn't look great, teams may rue the opportunity they weren't able to eliminate it when the Spanish were in a vulnerable position.

Spain lost its opening game to Switzerland. It has since started to gain confidence, but not yet reaching its optimum playing level. And Spain does have Villa, a goal machine that given enough time will somehow find a way to score.

"We never lost our confidence," Villa said. "We know the potential we have and what we can give."

Spain now moves into the quarterfinals against Paraguay. Paraguay moved on with a 1-0 win against Japan on penalties. It looks like an easy draw but that's deceiving.

Paraguay will play Spain tough defensively, waiting for a chance to break out on offence. Paraguay had a great qualifying campaign in South America leading the group until late in the competition. It is not an easy team to score on.

Spain has to score and score more than one goal because Paraguay will be happy to go to kicks from the penalty spot and take its chances.

It has done it before and will do it again. Then again, they've never had to face someone like Villa.

morris.dallacosta@sunmedia.ca


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