JOHANNESBURG // David Villa, Spain's prolific striker, struck again, his fifth goal of the tournament, to beat Paraguay after both sides missed a second-half penalty in a crazy three-minute spell. Villa's strike, which went in off both posts, was the only goal of a tightly fought game and sent his country into the semi-finals of the World Cup, where they will face Germany on Wednesday. It was by no means the comfortable victory many expected as Paraguay battled throughout, but Villa, so often his country's hero with five of Spain's six goals this summer, provided the perfect response following a remarkable few minutes that saw three penalties awarded and none result in a valid goal.
Spain started unchanged but, Gerardo Martino, the Paraguay manager, opted to make wholesale changes to the side that looked so impotent against Japan. Forwards Roque Santa Cruz, Lucas Barrios and Edgar Benitez all dropped to the bench, as Nelson Valdez, of Borussia Dortmund, and Oscar Cardozo, the Benfica striker who netted the winning penalty in their second round shoot-out, came in to lead La Albirroja's attack.
With both teams lining up identically - Spain deployed Sergio Busquets in the holding midfield role of their 4-1-3-2, while Paraguay recalled Libertad's Victor Caceres - the two sides seemed to tactically cancel each other out as the game started slowly. The South Americans were pressing their subdued Spanish opponents across the park and edged the opening exchanges, but when Andres Iniesta switched to the right flank and Villa moved left, La Roja seemed to relax and enjoy more success.
Xavi, the Barcelona schemer who before the match had created more goalscoring opportunities than any other player in South Africa, tried his luck from distance in the 30th minute, but his dipping volley sailed narrowly over Justo Villar's crossbar. Yet for all the Europeans' possession they struggled to infiltrate their opponents' robust backline and it was Paraguay who looked more likely to open the scoring.
Their searching deliveries from the wings were causing central pairing Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol problems and when Valdez smashed the ball into the net from close range, the Spaniards were fortunate to see the linesman raising his flag. Pre-match, Paraguay had conceded fewer shots on goal than any other quarter-finalist and that statistic remained unchanged as the teams headed back down the tunnel at half-time; Spain had failed to manage a single shot on target in 45 minutes.
Cesc Fabregas was introduced in place of Fernando Torres shortly after the break and, despite no direct involvement from the Arsenal midfielder, the game instantly sparked into life with a remarkable sequence of events. Paraguay won their first corner of the match and Pique was caught pulling Cardozo to the ground. The defender was booked and a penalty awarded, but the striker, so assured against Japan, saw his spot-kick saved excellently by Iker Casillas.
With the very next attack, Villa broke through on goal for Spain, only to be adjudged to have been hauled down by Antolin Alcaraz and Carlos Batres, the referee, once more pointed to the spot. With Barcelona's ?40 million (Dh180m) signing missing from 12 yards against Honduras in the group stages, Xabi Alonso stepped up and thought he had given his side the lead, only to see Batres insist it be retaken for encroaching.
At the second attempt, Villar guessed right and Paraguay survived. Santa Cruz was introduced for Valdez and Pedro was sent on in place of Alonso as both managers looked to capitalise on the new faster tempo of the game. And it was Vicente Del Bosque who, for the second successive game, saw his tactical gamble pay off most handsomely. With 10 minutes remaining, Iniesta broke through the centre of the park and skipped past a host of bodies before feeding Pedro. The Barcelona striker's composed finish struck the post, but Villa was on hand to calmly knock into an empty net, via both uprights, to send him top in the chase for the Golden Boot, and clinch a semi-final spot.