Spain move up a gear as history beckons
World Cup 2010: Cape Town
There was a half-hour spell during the second half of Spain's victory over Portugal that ought to have set the alarm bells ringing for the seven other nations left in this World Cup - particularly those from South America.
Shortly before David Villa scored the goal that put the Spanish into the quarter-finals, something visibly clicked for Vincent del Bosque's side and they began to look like their old selves for the first time since arriving in South Africa.
It is not that the European champions were misfiring badly until then, well not in the manner of the likes of England, Italy or France at any rate. I still saw more pretty passing patterns from Spain in the first 45 minutes at Cape Town Stadium than Fabio Capello's men managed in two weeks, it is just that they seemed unable to make their dominance in possession count.
Their opening defeat by a freakish Switzerland goal seemed to knock some of the swagger out of Del Bosque's side - and wins over Honduras and Chile failed to repair all of the damage. For large parts of the first half against the Portuguese, I thought Spain had an unusually fragile look about them.
That all seemed to change around the hour mark - the same time that Fernando Llorente replaced Fernando Torres, who might appear fully fit after his knee surgery in April but is palpably lacking the sharpness that usually makes him a special player to watch and an even more difficult one to mark.
Llorente seemed to be the spark that set Spain alight. They immediately went close to taking the lead before almost inevitably finding the net through Villa, who is now the World Cup's joint-top goalscorer with four goals and is showing why Barcelona paid Valencia £34m for him in May.
With belief flooding back, the Spanish players seemed to remember a) how well their system works and b) why they are major contenders to add a global crown to their continental title.
Highlights - Spain 1-0 Portugal
Portugal may not be the force they were when they reached the World Cup semi-finals in Germany in 2006 but they still occupy third place in the Fifa world rankings, had gone 19 games unbeaten and had kept a clean sheet in 22 of their previous 26 matches. Add in a touch of regional rivalry to the mix and Del Bosque can be very satisfied with his night's work against Spain's Iberian neighbours.
"There are three areas that are key for us," said Del Bosque after the game. "The first is controlling the ball, the second is attacking with conviction and the third is a solid defence. We had all three against Portugal which is why we won."
There was a bit more detail to their victory than that but the Spain coach played down the significance of the change he made, insisting Torres was tired and claiming Llorente merely provided fresh legs.
In one respect, Del Bosque was telling the truth. Spain did not alter their tactical approach, continuing to keep the ball with a succession of short, punchy passes. Yet the change in personnel undoubtedly made a difference.
The former Real Madrid boss has a big decision to make ahead of Saturday's quarter-final against Paraguay. Torres cannot be given too many more chances to find his feet.
It was telling to hear man-of-the-match Xavi talking afterwards about his side's "collective effort". That is exactly the reason why Del Bosque can afford to drop Torres if he wants.
While Portugal looked to the disappointing Cristiano Ronaldo as a potential match-winner on Tuesday night, Spain were able to rely on more than one man. It is pushing it to suggest they have been carrying Torres at this tournament but, with Villa in the sort of form he is, they have been able to afford a passenger up front so far.
That will have to change from here on in. It is possible that Europe's best team will have to beat four South American nations to win the title they crave at Johannesburg's Soccer City on 11 July. Chile have already been seen off in the group stage, now Paraguay await in the last eight, before possible games against Argentina in the semi-finals and Brazil in the final.
Whoever their opponents are, history is not on Spain's side. It is true they put to bed their tag of perennial under-achievers at major tournaments with their glorious Euro 2008 victory in Vienna, but at World Cups they still have a lot to prove. A fourth-place finish in 1950 is their best effort and they have yet to play in a semi-final.
Del Bosque knows already that the pressure is really on him now - one Spanish journalist at the post-match press conference pointed out that this weekend's game against Paraguay is the biggest of his two-year spell as national boss - but the signs are that he and his squad are taking everything in their stride.
"We are already among the eight best teams in the world," Del Bosque replied. "But we want to do better. I don't need to point to the Swiss game to remind the players that we can still make mistakes. We know how difficult every game will be now and we have to take things step by step."