James Lawton: Germany could not deny stylish Spain their day
No, we will not have a reprise of history, we will not have the brilliant neurotics of the Netherlands against the latest manifestation of the German genius for making one formidable team after another.
We will have Spain and the Dutch, two of the greatest but most unfulfilled of the football nations contending for their first world title on Sunday night. We will not have history, we will, at least it is pretty to think, have the future – one that might just be filled with artistry to rival much of the best we have seen in the past.
That was the promise made in Vienna two years ago when Spain won the European Championship with such superb élan and it was one repeated in Durban beside the Indian Ocean last night.
In the end it was astonishing that this young German team still posed something of a threat after Spain's young Pedro neglected the chance to serve the substitute Fernando Torres with the ball that would surely have finally killed off the opposition altogether.
They withstood everything but the brutally inflicted set-piece goal by Carles Puyol, the least polished of the Spaniards. In many ways they had been outclassed in the niceties of football. They could scarcely live with the perfect balance of the Spanish game, but if the Germans have much technical promise they also showed that they had superb spirit – and resilience.
Indeed, when the rhythm of Spain began to fray, when Andres Iniesta gave the ball away twice within a minute, you had to wonder if you had been watching some exaggerated version of rope-a-dope. Given all the evidence of the German ability to counter-attack with killing efficiency, it was maybe not so bizarre a theory.
Yet the fact was that in that first avalanche of passing, of ceaseless running, Spain might have scored twice and then, who knew what mayhem might follow from the release of the pressure on them to do more than produce some exquisite shadow-boxing?
For the Spanish coach Vicente del Bosque there was the familiar agony of seeing his team do everything but deliver an early sword-stroke. That pain was only intensified when a long shot from Piotr Trochowski forced Iker Casillas into a scrambling save and Sergio Ramos brought down Mesut Ozil perilously as the young German creator-in-chief swept into the box.
Here certainly was the great crisis in the art of Spanish football. Just as Jose Mourinho's Internazionale frustrated the Barcelona core of the Spain team in the Champions League, now this precocious German side were inviting them to do their worst and see if it worked. By half-time it was plainly not so doing. Spain's first monstrous share of possession was dwindling and the Germans, who spent an hour against the ropes, were venturing a little nearer to the centre of the ring.
Bastian Schweinsteiger, a titan in the destruction of first England, then Argentina, had been a spectator in the early going, watching the patterns of Xavi and Iniesta, and the brilliant, biting through ball of Pedro that almost opened the way for David Villa. When Puyol headed over from close in, the Germans, whatever their strategy, knew that they were extremely fortunate to still be alive.
The trouble for Spain, though, was that Germany remained a team plainly impervious to any form of intimidation, something which Iniesta was able to revive with a classic, tight little break along the left that almost sent Villa clear.
It seemed that the Germans could absorb any amount of pressure, concede all the grace notes that the Spanish were accumulating, and yet remain whole, and threatening as they proved when Lukas Podolski required Casillas to make a two-handed blocking save.
As deadlocks go, this one was touching moments of the sublime. There was something richly ironic, however, that when Spain did make their breakthrough it was not the final flourish of some dazzling mosaic of passing, it wasn't the rapier of Iniesta or a predatory swoop by Villa, but the thrusting, shaggy head of that eternal warrior, Puyol. His header smashed the defences of the dogged Manuel Neuer, and in a way it made something of a mockery of all that intricate Spanish construction.
Yet you cannot discount the refinement of the Spanish game. It will illuminate and dignify this 19th World Cup. It has the capacity to make poetry out of a game that often here has been too prosaic, to attach to the virtues of effort and strength.
Last night the Germans were caught in the Spanish web and even the relentless Schweinsteiger could not produce the power or the will to change the course of the game. Spain versus Holland has a wonderful ring to it and the suspicion here is that it will be one of the great finals. The best has been saved for last.