Three and a half hours of football yesterday and just one goal to show for it. This was a much better fare than that offered up by Paraguay and Japan earlier in the afternoon but once again this free-flowing, mouth-watering Spanish attack were kept quite comfortably at arm’s distance by a disappointingly negative Portugal side.
In Carlos Queiroz’s defence – if you’ll pardon the pun – there really is no other way to play against the Spain of 2010 and they will simply have to get used to it, much like Barcelona at club level. Spain were patient, though, confident that eventually a chance would be converted, and with David Villa wearing your colours it is usually a correct line of thought.
Spain flew out of the blocks, Eduardo saving from Torres and Villa, Xavi firing just over. But Portugal settled themselves into the game and actually had the better of the first half.
Cristiano Ronaldo had a couple of shots from free kicks. Casillas had to react quickly to smother the ball before Almeida could pounce, and reacted well to a fiercely-struck Tiago shot that was headed for the corner.
The second half began much as the first had ended. Hugo Almeida beat Pique for pace down the left side and went to cut back to Ronaldo but it took a deflection, looped up and over Casillas but dropped just outside the post. Spain were looking nervous, even misplacing the odd pass in midfield.
I will probably never get a chance to write this again, but Spain’s worst player was, by some distance, Fernando Torres. Yes, he had a poor season disrupted by injury, but his has been a poor World Cup and it appears Vicente del Bosque’s patience may finally have run out. That his withdrawal just before the hour was such a surprise says much about the English footballing psyche. He had not played well; he was a striker who was not going to score a goal, so replace him with someone who might. Reputation counts for little at this level.
His replacement, Fernando Llorente of Athletic Bilbao, almost scored within two minutes of his arrival. Sergio Ramos floated in a cross from deep – that’s right, a long ball – and Llorente stole ahead of his marker and flung himself at the ball. Had his diving header gone anywhere but straight down Eduardo’s throat he would have scored.
Queiroz made his first move too, midfielder Danny replacing Hugo Almeida. The removal of a 6’3″ striker signalled an intent to consolidate in defence, protect 0-0 and play for the penalties Portugal had doubtless spent much of the week practising. Unfortunately within five minutes Villa broke the deadlock.
Finally Xavi and Iniesta were able to work their magic, a cute backheel finding Villa unmarked at the near post. Eduardo was out quickly and blocked the first shot, but not the second, which Villa sent crashing into the roof of the net.
As against Honduras and Chile, as soon as Spain scored they looked comfortable. While so much has been said about their passing play as an attacking weapon it is equally important in defence. Portugal might have fancied their chances of getting an equaliser against a suspect defence that had already given up some good chances. The only problem was, they couldn’t get the ball.
With no target man due to Almeida’s substitution, Cristiano Ronaldo played up front on his own. While he has all the physical attributes and skills to play as a lone striker, it far from gets the best out of him and he would have been an ideal link between midfield and attack.
As the game wore on he cut an increasingly isolated figure and became visibly frustrated by the paucity of his impact on the game. At the death he did his usual pre-free-kick preening routine before scuffing a shot well wide, and boos rang out around the stadium.
There was still time for Ricardo Costa to get sent off for raising an elbow to Joan Capdevila. Initial replays showed no contact whatsoever but the host broadcaster has shown a habit in this world cup of starting its replays too late, and it was soon proved that an elbow was indeed raised, though Capdevila surely exaggerated what contact there was.
The 7-0 shellacking of North Korea aside, Portugal have had a poor World Cup. While Queiroz intelligently plotted his side’s course through the group of death – draw Ivory Coast, draw Brazil, hammer North Korea – his tactics were found wanting here when Portugal had to chase the game, something they had not been required to do in South Africa until last night. He was unable to turn things around and just threw on as many attacking players as his substitutions would allow, prompting Cristiano Ronaldo to answer tactical questions with a curt, “Ask Queiroz.”
As for Spain, once again they laboured to a win and one wonders how they will react when the chips are down. Del Bosque also has a big decision to make in the next few days on Fernando Torres’ role in the tournament going forward and, with the Spanish media and his predecessor Luis Aragones waiting in the wings with knives sharpened, he had better get it right.