x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Stylish Spain set up final with Holland

Carles Puyol's 73rd minute header sends the European Champions into the World Cup final at the expense of Germany.

Bastian Schweinsteiger, left, the Germany midfielder, is challenged by Sergio Ramos, the Spain right-back.
Bastian Schweinsteiger, left, the Germany midfielder, is challenged by Sergio Ramos, the Spain right-back.

DURBAN // And so it is confirmed. The first World Cup to be held on the African continent will also produce a first World Cup title for a thus-far underachieving European heavyweight. Spain secured a place in their first final, where they will meet Holland on Sunday, after Joachim Loew's youthful Germany side were outplayed and sent home courtesy of a second-half Carles Puyol header. It was an accomplished performance from the Spaniards, who had not faced Germany since the final of the European Championships in 2008, when a first-half strike from Fernando Torres sent La Roja home with the trophy.

Torres started on the bench last night as Vincente del Bosque, the respected Spanish coach, replaced the misfiring Liverpool forward with Pedro, who alongside Xavi and Andres Iniesta completed an advanced attacking triumvirate to sit slightly behind David Villa. Joan Capdevila, the veteran Vilarreal full-back, was the only player in the starting XI who does not play his domestic football for either of the two Primera Liga giants, Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Loew made just one change from the side that so comprehensively crushed Argentina 4-0, an enforced one as he replaced the suspended four-goal forward Thomas Muller with Piotr Trochowski, the Hamburg midfielder, but it was Spain, as they have grown accustomed to doing, who dominated the early possession. Villa, the tournament's joint top-scorer with five goals, gave the Germans an early warning of the threat he carries when he sneaked behind the opposition defence, but the Barca striker's rushed toe-poke struck the body of Manuel Neuer, the keeper. Moments later, Puyol should have given his country the lead, but his diving header rocketed over the German crossbar.

Loew's young side looked lost: when they had the ball, they were being pressured into mistakes and when they did not have it, their opponents' short passing game had them chasing Spanish shadows. It was a masterclass from Del Bosque's players; a lesson for the Germans; breathtaking for spectators. And for large periods of the first half that is all Miroslav Klose, the German forward, could do: watch.

But Del Bosque, sitting stationary in his dugout, will have been concerned: every team must capitalise on dominance and his had so far failed to do so. In the 32nd minute, not long after the thrilling fluid encounter's first foul, Trochowski's drive from distance forced Iker Casillas, the Spanish goalkeeper, to turn past his post. Die Mannschaft were stirring. Mesut Ozil, so brilliant against England but restrained by the robust Spaniards, found himself through on goal on the stroke of half time and was bundled over by Sergio Ramos. The referee rightly waved away claims for a penalty - it should have been a free-kick.

As the second half began, Del Bosque had clearly warned his side of the dangers of not capitalising on possession and the Spaniards showed a sense of urgency. Two thunderous strikes from Xabi Alonso both sailed wide, but the intent was there and Loew quickly made a change, replacing Jerome Boateng with Marcell Jansen at left-back. Still Spain attacked and when Iniesta, flawless and fantastic, skipped past two defenders to roll the ball across the goal, Villa was inches away from taking advantage. Such was their domination in the final third that after an hour, the European champions had enjoyed 11 shots; Germany just two.

Once again, Loew acted decisively, hauling off Trochowski and introducing Toni Kroos. The extra man in Spain's midfield was allowing them to dominate in a way they had failed to in their quarter-final with Paraguay, but without a second striker, they appeared to lack the required instruments in attack. Del Bosque signalled for Torres to warm-up as Kroos's volley, the result of a rare Germany counter-attack, was expertly palmed wide by Casillas. But before Torres was able to take to the field, Spain had struck. Puyol, making up for his earlier missed header, rose the highest to steal the ball off the head of teammate Pique and power home from a Xavi corner.

With Germany now chasing the game, they looked susceptible to being punished by a fast counter. Torres replaced Villa with nine minutes remaining and should have been on the scoresheet seconds later, but Pedro, having been played through wonderfully and in acres of space, greedily refused to pass when his teammate had an open goal looming. Fortunately for Pedro, who was quickly removed, his decision was irrelevant and as the whistle blew, the staff on the Spanish bench erupted - most of them landing on the broad shoulders of their hero, Puyol.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae