Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 19 April 2014

Steven Beacom: No kidding, Villa is a giant star for Spain

David Villa

Player of the tournament so far? Lionel Messi? Definitely a contender. Thomas Muller? Got to be on the shortlist. Diego Forlan? He’s up there too. Wesley Sneijder? Pretty impressive.

Ahead of them all at the moment, though, is David Villa.

He showed why, last night, as Spain triumphed 1-0 against Portugal to move into the World Cup quarter-finals.

Playing in what is a fantastic team, it’s this individual who is the reason why Spain are still in the tournament.

Before it all kicked off two and a half weeks ago (you’re right, it does seems like longer) there was great excitement at the prospect of watching the slick Spanish side. They had done what England failed to do in South Africa, ending 44 years of hurt and under achievement in 2008 by winning the European Championships.

Suddenly the shackles were off. From being renowned as a team who bottled it when the going got tough, they became the most attractive side on the planet.

They weren’t just winning, they were winning with style. The perfect combination.

Watching Xavi, Iniesta and Xabi Alonso weaving their magic and painting pretty pictures in midfield was a joy.

And in attack Villa and Fernando Torres had the class and clinical finishing to make pulses quicken.

At their breathtaking best, the Spanish team were a work of art. Going into this World Cup they were the side to fear.

Four games in, though, and they have been nowhere near their bewitching best, yet they are in the last eight which says much about how they have matured since that Euro success two years ago.

They are not winning ugly, but their normal crisp passing has lacked conviction and key figure Torres is desperately short on confidence. Lucky for Spain they have Villa.

The 28-year-old's three goals in the group stages inspired them to reach the knockout stages. He was the difference again last night.

Against a well drilled Portugal side, the Spanish, despite dominating possession, were starting to look like they had run out of ideas until that man intervened.

Following one of the few incisive moves in what was a largely disappointing encounter, Villa produced a super finish, reacting sharply to chip home after Eduardo had saved his initial effort. It was a priceless strike to go along with an exceptional all-round display.

No wonder Barcelona paid so much money to sign him from Valencia.

Villa wears the number seven jersey for Spain, previously the property of Real Madrid legend Raul. Not an easy shirt to fill, but he’s bursting out of it. He’s now got 32 goals in his last 34 internationals and 41 in 61 overall. Remarkable.

He’s nicknamed El Guaje which translated means the Kid.

Well, this kid has it all — a tremendous work ethic, skill, deceptive pace, strength of character and all those goals.

Spain will be thankful he is on fire because their other big stars like Xavi, Iniesta and especially Torres have yet to ignite in this tournament.

Liverpool striker Torres is having a nightmare, but you have to believe a player of his ability will come good. Despite his failings to date, he should still start against Paraguay in the quarter-finals.

As for Portugal, who had Ricardo Costa sent off late on after Joan Capdevila needlessly went down in a heap following an aerial challenge, they follow France, Italy and England home as another of Europe’s big hitters who failed to deliver.

The Portuguese tactics puzzled last night. It’s one thing to be organised as Portugal were and to make life difficult for the opposition, but when you have an attacking force like Cristiano Ronaldo surely he must be used a whole lot more.

He cut an isolated and frustrated figure against the Spanish and leaves this World Cup without making an impact.

Wayne Rooney, Ronaldo and Messi all arrived in South Africa, battling to be labelled the undisputed number one player in the world. There’s no argument now.

In fact on the evidence of this competition the only man who comes close to Messi is Villa. To think they’ll be playing together for Barcelona next season.

Before that they meet in the semi-finals. Bring it on.

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