x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Spain saved by Saint Iker

If there is a problem, it is that the European champions have won only one of their five games by more than one goal, meaning they have ridden their luck.

Iker Casillas's stock rose further in Spain after he made a decisive save against Paraguay.
Iker Casillas's stock rose further in Spain after he made a decisive save against Paraguay.

BARCELONA // Hundreds of Argentina fans remained in Barcelona's busy Passeig del Born on Saturday night, dazed and confused after watching their team taken apart by Germany. German tourists, outnumbered by the huge Argentine expatriate community in Spain's second city, kept a lower profile. They did not want to rub in their team's success.

There were even fewer Spain shirts on display. While outward shows of support for Spain in Catalonia are rare, everyone was watching their quarter-final match against Paraguay. Television figures showed it equalled the audience for the final of the European Championships two years ago when Spain overcame Germany. The pair will meet again in Wednesday's semi-finals. A huge roar changed the atmosphere irrevocably in the city. It came from all the taverns, restaurants and 300-year-old apartments. It was a happy cry, a primal scream containing relief and joy.

It was not a goal, but a penalty save and, not for the first time, Iker Casillas, the captain, was the hero of the Spanish team. Known as "Saint Iker" by millions of compatriots, that image was strengthened as the 29-year-old goalkeeper saved a penalty from Oscar Cardozo as Spain reached the semi-finals of the World Cup for the first time in their history. To do so, they had to overcome a fiercely competitive and obdurate Paraguay team, with Casillas also making crucial saves from Lucas Barrios and Roque Santa Cruz to thwart the South Americans' attempts to equalise. Little wonder then, that Casillas and his TV journalist girlfriend were beaming as she interviewed him after the game.

Vicente del Bosque, the coach, was also full of praise for his goalkeeper. "Casillas has been extraordinary," said the man who gave him his Real Madrid debut in 1999. "He made two magnificent stops and he certainly contributed to our success." Gerardo Martino, the Paraguay coach, agreed. "Undoubtedly he has been decisive," he said. It has becoming more acceptable to support Spain in Barcelona, a city where people see themselves as Catalan first and Spanish second. It is helped that there is such a strong Barca influence in the side.

The scenes which greeted the goal scored by David Villa, the new Barcelona signing, were equally ecstatic. It was his fifth goal of a tournament during which he has underlined his status at the most prolific striker in world football. The Spanish believe, but they are not blind to the weaknesses of their side. La Roja have dominated all their matches, never enjoying less than 60 per cent of possession. Their short, quick passing game is easy on the eye, more so when Spain score and appear to relax. If there is a problem, it is that the European champions have won only one of their five games by more than one goal, meaning they have ridden their luck and played nervy final minutes in the majority of their matches.

There are individual issues, too. Fernando Torres has been poor, ponderous and does not look 100 per cent fit after injury. The relief was immediate when he was replaced by Cesc Fabregas after 56 minutes against Paraguay, and he may be relegated to the bench against Germany. Spaniards are happy with the performance of a defence which has conceded just two goals. Gerard Pique, the central defender, and Sergio Ramos, the right-back, have been among the best in South Africa. There have been occasional question marks over Carles Puyol and Joan Capdevila, the left-back, but not enough to warrant changes.

The midfield, Spain's great creative engine, holds no worries. Real Madrid's Xabi Alonso is solid if not spectacular and the same can be said of Barcelona's Xavi and Sergio Busquets. And while Andres Iniesta, their club teammate, may be just back from injury, like Torres, he has justified his billing as one of the best in the world, running at players and creating chances for the likes of Villa. Spain have yet to play their best, but they are overcoming difficult opponents and not conceding goals. Rivals like Italy, France, Brazil, England and Argentina would love to be able to say the same.

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