The fast-paced, skill-rich match was one both connoisseurs and soccer neophytes could enjoy equally. And it was made all the more intriguing thanks to the Ibero grudge match factor.
In the end, the best team won. But the result was always going to come down to this: Would star Portuguese striker, sex symbol, and prima donna Cristiano Ronaldo have a break-out performance or not?
Unfortunately for Portugal, Ronaldo's only breakout performance today had to do with his acting. But the referee turned a cold shoulder to his theatrics, mostly refusing to reward him for his diving and writhing after slight fouls.
Spain, as always, looked commanding at midfield, knocking the ball around with ease and swagger, and searching for holes in the back of the Portuguese defense. But they couldn’t find any, and Portugal saw the best goal opportunities in the first half.
Ronaldo nearly created a goal in the 28th minute with a rocket of a free kick from nearly 40 yards out. The Jabulani, as the controversial new World Cup ball is called, worked its magic, swerving mysteriously at the last moment as it careened toward world-class Spanish goalkeeper Iker Casillas, who used his chest and then forearms to bump the ball just above the heads of the ravenous Portuguese attackers.
Ten minutes later, Ronaldo's teammate Hugo Almeida almost scored on a header, but the cross seemed to sail just a little higher than he expected. Did he mis-time his jump or did the Jabulani again take on a life of its own? Either way, it was the best scoring opportunity of the half for either team.
As in the first half, Spain started the second half apparently assuming that their combined talent and crisp passing would overwhelm the Portuguese. But it was all too cute. They couldn’t find the seams. They lacked the creativity in the box needed to open up some shots.
Meanwhile, Portugal, yet again, looked far more dangerous with their no-nonsense, lightning-quick attack. No messing about. Nothing pretty. Just desperate dashes to goal and runs behind the defense.
But they couldn’t find Ronaldo.
And patience eventually paid off for the Spaniards. The Red Fury finally got a nice pass through to deadly finisher David Villa after a lovely combination from Iniesta and a delicate backheel pass from Xavi.
Villa powered home a rebound from his first shot, which was stopped at point-blank range by Portuguese keeper Eduardo.
From then on it was desperation from the Portuguese, which nearly allowed Spain to add to its tally several times. The game turned ugly near the end, too, with dirty fouls and dirty words exchanged. Portugal’s Ricardo Costa received a red card with minutes to go for an elbow to Joan Capdevila’s head.
With one man down, Portugal still managed to create a few chances in the closing minutes.
But the team still could not find Ronaldo. It wasn’t to be.
Spain now goes on to face Paraguay in the quarterfinals, and they may need even more patience than they showed today if they are to crack Paraguay’s notoriously stingy defense.
World Cup 101: