Some random observations after the First Knockout Round:
Paraguay 0-0 Japan a.e.t. (5-3 pk): Discipline and distribution – two keys to both evenly matched teams that have made it farther than anybody expected. Paraguay was a little more physical, while Japan played off the ball carrier more than closed them down. Not very daring or adventuresome offensively early on, both sides were more tentative and just waited for each other to make a mistake in their own end to get chances on goal. Japan started to find space in the final third but manifested it by taking long shots just outside the penalty area. Paraguay used their height advantage by making attacking headway on set pieces, throw-ins and 50-50 balls, while Japan used their speed to make headway into the final third. Few opportunities for either team in the first half but nothing on target. After the half Japan started closing down Paraguayan players on the ball, as well as finding space in the center of the field to create an attack in the final third. Paraguay started to get the ball in the attacking end but their service into the box to their two big target men Barrios and Santa Cruz lacked quality. About two-thirds of the way through the game both sides opened up offensively and there was a lot of action in both penalty areas, but both sides managed to maintain their defensive shape. You just got a sense that whoever scored first was going to win – or the game was going to go to extra time and even penalties. To their credit, neither Paraguay nor Japan played it safe in extra time; both teams furiously attacked their opponent’s penalty (or as much as these two disciplined teams could). So no surprise that it ended after 120 minutes on p.k.’s. An unsatisfying ending to an unsatisfying game, but Paraguay gets through. Japan has nothing to hang their heads about; they played fantastic football throughout their entire stay in South Africa. Paraguay has done it with a suffocating defense like they have for over 12 years now, so they certainly have no reason to change anything about their play now that they are in the quarterfinals for the first time ever.
Portugal 0-1 Spain: The Battle of Iberia. Sublime combination passing on all sides of the pitch followed by early quality shots on goal by David Villa for Spain, who announced early on that they were going to build up their quality attack and test Portugal’s discipline in the back early on. This had the added benefit of keeping possession away from Portugal, which kept the ball away from Ronaldo, who had to spend a better part of the game chasing the ball as opposed to staying on his customary and comfortable left side. Portugal did have a significant height advantage, which they used to good effect on set pieces and 50-50 balls. The triumvirate of Tiago, Simao and Ronaldo were able to get the ball in the midfield and spread the Spanish midfield and defense on occasion, switching play from flank to flank and getting shots off albeit not on target. The better offensive buildup was by Spain, though. Portugal’s buildup was more a result of Spain sustaining possession to the point of moving too many men forward and then Spain losing their concentration, with Portugal taking advantage (but still no real quality shots on goal or an inability for their front players to get an end on service). Not exactly clear why Hugo Almeida stayed on the pitch for four Portugal fixtures; he was practically useless up front, so he was replaced by Danny, who moved more to the left while Ronaldo played more centrally. Fernando Torres had a tough time finding his shot, also, so he was replaced by Fernando Llorente, who started making quality shots on goal from the jump. Things began warming up for Spain because for whatever reason Portugal was giving up way too much possession. That was pretty much the primary reason why Villa finally scored off of a patient buildup by Spain (with a big assist from Andres Iniesta, who was massively responsible for patiently holding the ball in the final third and finding his man despite being surrounded by Portuguese defenders). Such precise passing by Spain had Portugal just kind of running all over the place, keeping them from having any decent amount of possession. In the waning minutes Portugal just pounded the ball in the final third, hoping that somebody would get on the end of it. A red card on defender Ricardo Costa put the kibosh on their hopes. Outside of opening up a can of whupass on the worst team in this tournament, this was a rather mundane performance by Portugal and Ronaldo, who continues not to be the prime-time player he needs to be on the national stage. It will be interesting to see how Paraguay’s defense handles the patient creativity of Spain.