Puyol powers Spain to first final

SO we will have new world champions for the first time on Sunday, when Spain meet the Netherlands in Soccer City, but will we have a world-class game?

Spain edged past Germany last night to reach their first ever World Cup final, thanks to Carles Puyol’s 73rd minute header, but it was another game that fell below the expectations of the watching world.

The Spanish won’t mind that it was a cagey encounter, more of a chess match than the sort of thrills and spills we prefer from cup football.

At least Vicente del Bosque’s men got the result they deserved for their insistence on going forward and trying to play a passing game, even if they over-elaborated time and time again.

You might pity the poor Germans for falling at the semi-final hurdle, except that they showed such a lack of adventure, content to soak up Spanish pressure and relying on the fast counter-attacking football that had worked to devastating effect in previous rounds.

But without the suspended wide man Thomas Mueller, they lacked pace and any threat on the right, and with Lukasz Podolski having a quiet game, Miroslav Klose looked isolated up front.

Del Bosque chose to drop Fernando Torres in favour of winger Pedro, and revert to playing David Villa as a lone striker.

It almost worked in the opening minutes as the pair combined to put Villa clear but Manuel Neuer was out quickly to save at his feet.

Puyol missed a header from close range and Xabi Alonso shot wide from long range before the Germans had their first real effort on goal, when Mueller’s replacement Piotr Trochowski had a low shot tipped away by Iker Casillas.

Goalless at half-time, and with the Spanish running into blind alleys as a disciplined German back line blocked and jockeyed them away from goal, del Bosque told his players to up the tempo and go for it after the break.

Andres Iniesta and Xavi continued to weave their intricate patterns in the German half, but could not get near goal and the Spaniards resorted to shooting from long distance.

Xabi Alonso shot wide from outside the penalty area twice in succession and then Villa curled a shot just past the far post from similar range. Good work from Joan Capdevila created a chance for Pedro to shoot, but his thumping drive was saved by Neuer and Iniesta put the loose ball across goal, with Villa unable to convert.

Villa then cut in from the right to shoot firmly at goal but Neuer again saved.

As Spain became more frustrated and in danger of running out of both legs and ideas, Germany sensed their chance to snatch a goal, and it almost worked in the 69th minute. Podolski got down the left, looped a cross to the far side of the penalty area when substitute Tony Kroos was waiting unmarked. But Kroos shot weakly and too close to Casillas, who was able to save comfortably.

The Germans were made to pay when Spain scored the decisive goal.

Xavi floated in a corner from the left and Puyol powered in to thump in his header from 10 yards, leaving Neuer little chance to do anything other than flap at the ball.

Spain continued to press for the killer second goal, and del Bosque sent on Torres for Villa.

The Liverpool striker has been out of sorts but surely he would have scored if Pedro had put him clean through on goal rather than trying – and failing – to score himself.

But in the end the Spanish held on to make sure their first World Cup semi-final was a successful one – and now they face the Netherlands for the first time in a major championship.

“We’ve shown that in the big moments we’ve risen to the occasion. It’s the best game we’ve played. We deserved to score more but a Puyol goal put us in the final and we’re exultant,” said Villa.

Del Bosque was glowing in his praise of his players.

“All of our players were extraordinary but we still have a match to play,’’ he said with an eye on the final.

“From defence through to attack, I think we played a great game.

“We’ve got another game in front of us. We’re in good shape physically, so let’s see if we can win.’’

Philip Lahm, Germany’s captain said was gracious in defeat. He said: “It was very difficult tonight. We didn’t play courageously enough in the first half. We had a chance in the second but weren’t able to use it. It’s a huge disappointment. We wanted to do a lot and didn’t succeed.”

Now the world waits to see what will happen on Sunday – and let us hope we have a World Cup final to remember.

Subs for Germany: Jansen for Boateng 52, Kroos for Trochowski 62, Gomez for Khedira 80.

Subs for Spain: Torres for Villa 81, Silva for Pedro 85, Marchena for Alonso 90.


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