Against a Paraguayan team that seemed overmatched on paper, Spain looked like a weekend gardener trying to get a balky lawnmower going. No matter how many times it pulled the start cord, it couldn’t get its motor running. Only a late, somewhat fortunate goal by David Villa— in another game with crazy refereeing— afforded Spain a trip to the semi-finals against Germany.
Give credit to Paraguay for making Spain look ordinary. All night long Paraguay clogged Spain’s fuel lines, stepping into the passing lanes, harassing the Spaniards in the middle of the park with five, six, even seven players.
Spain added to its own problems: its lack of respect for this opponent was fairly evident in its lack of urgency, believing it could simply will the ball past the Paraguayans. After all, Spain is famous, and Paraguay is . . . not. Up front, Fernando Torres and Villa were forced to chase long balls into unpromising positions until Torres was replaced by Cesc Fabregas in the 56th minute. Spain’s right back, Sergio Ramos, dribbled into trouble at nearly every opportunity.
Then Gerard Piqué, who played miserably the entire night, nearly gave Paraguay everything it needed, dragging down Oscar Cardozo in the box for a penalty in the 57th minute. Spain’s great keeper Iker Casillas denied Cardozo on the kick with a dive to his left. Paraguay’s first great chance to steal this game was gone.
In about 90 seconds the game got crazy, then insane. On an ensuing play, Villa was hacked down by Antolin Alcaraz, and Guatemalan referee Carlos Batres pointed to the spot. Xabi Alonso calmly put the ball past Paraguayan keeper Justo Villar, but Batres— adding to the case that the refs have been abysmal here— ruled that Spain’s other players had jumped into the box too soon. When Villar stopped the rekick, Fabregas swooped onto the rebound. Villar appeared to have fouled Fabregas, which would have meant another penalty kick was in order, but Batres waved it off as Ramos shot the rebound goalward, where it was saved off the line.
It was then back to work for both sides, meaning Paraguay kept up its attitude and Spain kept up its ineptitude. But in the 83rd minute Andrés Iniesta finally slipped past two defenders and pushed the ball into the path of the substitute Pedro, who hit the right post. The ball rebounded to Villa, whose subsequent shot smacked the same post, rolled across the goal, kissed the left post and went in. It took a double bank shot to finally undo this Paraguayan team. And in the 89th minute it took a fine double save from Casillas to foil a last Paraguay attack after Spain had once again coughed up the ball at midfield. You’d like to say that Spain, the more skilled team, deserved its trip to the semifinals, but that would hardly be fair to Paraguay, which played well enough to win, but not well enough to get on the board. Spain had better be better than this against Germany.