At 32, he’s lost a step, perhaps not as imperiously infallible at the back as in years past, but he remains the resolve, the raw, uncensored emotion, the steel spine of the silken Spaniards.
The wild man from La Pobla de Segur, Carles Puyol’s Catalan nickname is Tiburon, the Shark, and with one ravenous bite Wednesday, he ripped the heart from the chest of a prodigious young German team.
Attacking a curling Xavi corner kick, Puyol rose in the 72nd minute and, in a career that is littered with accomplishments for Barcelona and at the 2008 European Championship for Spain, delivered what could turn out to be his most inspired moment, hammering a header past German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer to catapult Spain into its first FIFA World Cup final. This was as dominating as a 1-0 score line can be.
The Netherlands awaits Sunday at Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg.
“We’re so happy at making the final at last,” enthused midfielder Xabi Alonso. “I thought the whole team was great and Puyol just threw himself at the ball. You could feel the whole team behind him when he scored and we could have got another one, too.
“We’re going for the big prize now and I hope we’ll have more reasons to be celebrating soon.”
Out of sorts for large stretches of this tournament, everyone kept waiting for the Spanish to deliver the style that has made them, FIFA’s often puzzling rankings aside, the planet’s best, most aesthetically pleasing team over the past three years. They sent it COD to the Germans
Losing coach Joachim Loew admitted that the Spain’s cool conviction in possession “inhibited” his side, the youngest Germany has fielded at a World Cup in 76 years.
When they’re knocking it around like Wednesday, the Spanish are tighter with the ball than Jack Benny was with a buck.
“We just never had the ball,” sighed Loew. “All credit to the Spanish.
“When you play against Spain, you have to work very hard.
“They’re just such good footballers, and that showed up our current limitations today. They stifled us in certain areas, and we were never able to break free. Their passing game is so good, you spend practically all your time just chasing. We were unable to win possession in the key areas which would have allowed us to switch from defence to attack at speed. Overall, my young team has had a magnificent tournament, but it’s not worked out the way we wanted it today.
“It’s a shame, we’re sad and all disappointed, but at the end of the day Spain was terrific.”
They were, particularly during a second half when they could’ve easily scored four, if not for Neuer and a little bad luck. The most in-form team at this tournament at kickoff, the Germans seemed almost cowed by the ease with which La Roja exploited gaps, caressed the ball around the pitch.
“What matters,” said Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque, “is the quality of the people in your midfield. If you have order there, then you can showcase individual talent.”
Only once could you remember Spanish goalkeeper Iker Casillas being troubled, a fine point-blank stop off substitute Toni Kroos, set up by a lovely short cross from Lukas Podolski.
Other than that, Spain bossed the game.
“We lacked the courage of our convictions going forward,” conceded German skipper Philipp Lahm.
Oh, Germany certainly did miss the suspended Thomas Mueller. But that’s too convenient an excuse.
What matters more was that counter-attacking blueprint which had worked to such devastating effect against England and Argentina, seemed to never get going. Because, simply put, Spain are unrivalled at ball control never gave the Germans a chance.
“That was a completely different game compared to Argentina,” sighed German defender Marcell Jansen. “Spain’s organization and tactics are in a different league. When they attack, the whole team comes forward, and when they defend, they all work together to keep it tight.”
The Spanish were on top for the majority of the first half, but German resolved held firm. For the moment.
Pedro, more than justifying Del Bosque’s decision to start another midfielder in place of struggling striking star Fernando Torres, created the best chance, threading through for the ever-lurking David Villa, who beat Arne Friedrich for pace and slid into a shot that Neuer did well to close down. Moments later, Puyol really should’ve been less wayward off an Andres Iniesta corner, blasting a free header over the bar.
He’d make up for that miss later, of course.
The game then lapsed back into a familiar pattern, Spain probing for an opening, the Germans quite content to lay back, absorb the pressure and look to hit quickly on the counter.
After the break, as the Spanish ramped up the tempo, Loew’s group, sure to contend again four years from now in Brazil, couldn’t keep up. It’s been a wondrous tournament for the Germans but this semifinal showed inarguably that more seasoning is needed to push them to a different level. Playmaker Mesut Oezil, such a discovery at this World Cup, appeared frayed, tired, for a second straight game.
Not that anything would’ve made enough difference Wednesday. Not with all those matadors, and their inspirational bull, in such fine fettle.
The Dutch will be up against it Sunday.
“Spain has been the best team around in the last two or three years,” praised the vanquished Loew. “They’re the best in the world.
“And, yes, I think they’ll win the tournament.”