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World Cup: Spain advances to final

July 7, 2010 |  1:29 pm
Spain is going to the World Cup final for the first time.

And Carles Puyol will forever be remembered as the man who sent the Spanish there with his high-flying header late in the second half that lifted La Furia Roja to a 1-0 win over Germany on Wednesday.

Spain will meet the Netherlands, a 3-2 winner over Uruguay in the other semifinal, on Sunday in Johannesburg.

Puyol’s goal, just his third in nearly 90 international matches, came in the 73rd minute off a beautifully designed set piece that started with a Xavi corner kick. Puyol began the play at the edge of the penalty area and came charging in to meet the ball with a well-timed header, driving it past German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer.

The goal exposed a strange German strategy that saw the team laying back for most of the match, giving Spain the run of the field. After Puyol's goal, the Germans, aggressive for most of the tournament, desperately tried to shift gears. But with the Spanish laying back, it was too little, too late.

The bigger, more physical Germans were exceedingly patient in the first hand, ceding much of the early action on the offensive end to the nimble, crisp-passing Spaniards. And as a result, Spain, left free to work right down the middle of the field, had the best scoring chances in the opening 20 minutes.

But David Villa’s sliding shot was stopped by Neuer in the seventh minute; Puyol’s header off an Andres Iniesta cross in the 14th minute sailed over the net; and Sergio Ramos’ shot from the right wing also was high.

Spain got one last shot off in the final seconds of the half, but Pedro's 30-yarder skipped into Neuer's arms as the half ended.

Germany’s best opportunity -- and just about its only chance in the first half -- came in the 32nd minute on a 25-yard left-footer kick from Piotr Trochowski that Spanish keeper Iker Casillas stopped with a hand. For most of the half, though, the speedier Spaniards kept the Germans bottled up in the midfield.

The German defense, meanwhile, played so deep and allowed Spain to operate so often in and around the penalty area that it seemed to be just a matter of time before a tiny mistake would prove costly.

Germany tried to come out more aggressively in the second half, but that didn't slow Spain, which got off the first three shots after the intermission, putting the Germans back on their heels again.

And they almost scored, too, with an Iniesta pass through the box just missing a wide-open Villa at the other side and Neuer stopping a Pedro shot during a wide flurry of activity in the German goal in the 58th minute

Germany showed some life for the first time in the second half in the 68th minute when a nice cross found Toni Kroos alone on the right side of the 18-yard box. But his dead-on shot did not surprise Casillas, who made the save.

It all seemed a strange strategy for the Germans, who had scored eight goals in their two previous games by attacking. Spain, on the other hand, has thrived in the kind of tight game that seemed to be developing, having won its two knockout-round games by identical 1-0 scores.

Of course, the last of those German victories was over Argentina. And since 1994, the team that has eliminated Argentina has itself been knocked out in its next game.

For Germany, the loss marked its second in the semifinals in the last two World Cups. Spain, meanwhile, was making its first appearance this deep in the tournament under the modern World Cup format.

And for La Furia Roja the win -- in arguably the country's most important soccer game ever -- continued a remarkable four-year run that included a European Championship and a 35-match unbeaten streak.

That European Championship came at the expense of Germany, but 15 of the players on the German roster in South Africa weren't on the team that lost to Spain. But all that means nothing come Sunday, Villa said.

"Without a World Cup [win], it's like we've achieved nothing," he said.

 For Germany, the two-year rebuilding project between the Euros and this tournament has left it with its youngest national team in 76 years. And with an average age of 25, it was the third-youngest team in this World Cup.

But youth and inexperience weren't the only obstacles Germany had to overcome. Midfielder Michael Ballack, the team captain, was injured in the FA Cup final in the spring and never suited up for Germany in the World Cup.

And the Germans had to play Wednesday without their chief offensive weapon, Thomas Mueller, who was forced to sit out after drawing two yellow cards earlier in the tournament.

Spain's starting lineup was also without a mainstay Wednesday, but that was by choice with Coach Vicente del Bosque benching struggling striker Fernando Torres in favor of Pedro.

Torres came on late in place of Villa to protect the lead, however

-- Kevin Baxter in Durban, South Africa

Photo: Spanish players celebrate after taking a 1-0 lead late in their World Cup semifinal match against Germany on Wednesday. Credit: Kerim Okten / EPA.