Can anyone catch David Villa now? Two matches in and the Spain striker has four goals at Euro 2008. Having collected a hat-trick in the rout of Russia, he was obliged to wait for his next until stoppage time against Sweden, but he took it with all the verve of a man fresh on to the field, not one who had been running across the front line for 92 minutes. Escaping Petter Hansson, Villa slipped the ball precisely past Andreas Isaksson to put Spain into the quarter-finals.
They should be grateful to their two lively strikers. Fernando Torres, of Liverpool, had scored their first and seen a pair of strong efforts saved by Isaksson in a second half in which Spain emerged as the more ambitious and better side.
Granted, the Swedes had by then lost their most threatening presence, Zlatan Ibrahimovic having withdrawn at the interval for fitness reasons, after equalising and taken his tally to two in less than two games. Ibrahimovic may still have a part to play in the competition, but all the goalscorers in Austria and Switzerland will find it tough to catch up with Villa.
Spain can now focus on the big milestone, going beyond the last eight, such a glass ceiling to them in modern tournament history. Momentum can fizzle rapidly with this national team, but they feel they have acquired their current thrust, 18 games undefeated, over a long enough time to shield themselves against the neuroses that attack la seleccion in the knockout stages time and again.
Their head coach, Luis Aragones, was celebrating his own major milestone yesterday, his 50th match in charge, feeling as chipper as at any time in that half-century. The journey has been by no means smooth. Aragones ought to have lost his job when he was overheard referring to Thierry Henry as a “black shit” in a practice ground gee-up of the faded starlet Jose Antonio Reyes barely a year into his tenure. He nearly got the sack when Sweden beat Spain in qualifying for this competition, this after a defeat against Northern Ireland in Belfast. At that stage Spain had three points from a possible nine in their group. Aragones would then guide them to the top of that pool and those losses are two of only three he has known in competitive matches. The one that hurt, a World Cup quarter-final against France, followed a campaign that started full of promise and flair. It stands as a warning.
Aragones is 70 next month, vaccinated against overconfidence and old enough to remember how it was when Spain were champions of Europe, to tell a group of players who were all born well after that distant and lonely annotation in history, way back in 1964.
He had a private word with Torres in the lead-up to last night’s fixture after the usually imperturbable Liverpool striker had exhibited some disappointment at being substituted against Russia. After a quarter of an hour in Innsbruck, we saw the effect. Torres scored his first goal of Euro 2008, extending a long leg to prod home the excellent David Silva’s cross after Villa had worked Xavi’s corner back to Silva.
Torres had made an impact already, attacking Michael Nilsson at left-back. There was strategy here, Nilsson being more used to a position on the right extreme of the defence, on his stronger foot. Silva once or twice swapped flanks to probe the same territory and Andres Iniesta cut from that wing to spray a shot off target. Sergio Ramos also advanced to test Nilsson, drawing the full-back into a clumsy foul.
Once ahead, Spain felt a little more of Sweden’s menace. Ibrahimovic struck a rasping effort into the side netting, as did Johan Elmander, and Henrik Larsson wasted a promising opportunity, provided by Ibrahimovic’s chip by volleying it too early, high over Iker Casillas’s goal. Sweden’s front three each carried a threat and the form man among them, Ibrahimovic, made good on their enterprise to equalise. Daniel Andersson picked out Fredrik Stoor with a raking crossfield pass, Stoor centred to Ibrahimovic and although the striker’s first touch was flawed, his marker, Ramos, had gone to ground, allowing Ibrahimovic to recover his poise and stab the ball with enough power that Casillas could only slow its progress across the goalline.
By then, Spain had suffered a setback, Barcelona captain and centre-half Carles Puyol withdrawing in discomfort a mere quarter of the way through the contest. The inexperienced Raul Albiol replaced him and would be obliged to work his way into the defence in a hurry. Spain were being kept busy at the back, with Freddie Ljungberg joining the forwards eagerly. Aragones may indeed have been the happier of the two managers to hear the half-time whistle, his side’s bright start having rather faded.
Sweden’s head coach Lars Lagerback then had his enforced change to make. Ibrahimovic had not come into the tournament fully recovered from the knee problems that interrupted his successful season with Internazionale. His time against Spain was up after 45 minutes and one goal.
Spain seemed briefly cheered by the absence of their most gifted opponent and set about the second period with their mix of intricacy and something more raw. Iniesta, Silva and Villa were guilty of too much interpassing that let a move of promise fizzle; centre-back Carlos Marchena the committed the kind of hefty foul that is part of his make-up, felling Elmander and earning a thus far entertaining match its first yellow card, and provoking a outbreak of niggly incidents. Svensson was cautioned; Torres fell a little too easily on running into Nilsson.
Just before the hour Cesc Fabregas was introduced and with he and Santi Cazorla, a substitute for Iniesta, on a bit of fizz returned to Spain’s midfield. The Arsenal player was involved in the build-up to move that ought to have earned either Villa or Silva a goal, Isaksson parrying Silva’s shot and preventing Villa capitalising on the loose ball. Marcos Senna tried the more direct route, thrusting forward from his anchor position to drive a shot, pushed away by Isaksson.
Spain held the upper hand from there, and pushed and pushed. The electric Villa was on hand to make it count.
Star man: David Silva (Spain)
Player ratings: Sweden: Isaksson 7, Stoor 6, Mellberg 6, Hansson 6, Nilsson 5, Elmander 7 (S Larsson 79min), Andersson 6, Svensson 6, Ljungberg 6, Ibrahimovic 7 (Rosenberg ht, 6), H Larsson 6(Kallstrom 87min)
Spain: Casillas 6, Ramos 6, Marchena 5, Puyol 5 (Albiol 24min, 6), Capdevilla 6, Silva 8, Xavi 6 (Fabregas 59min, 6), Senna 6, Iniesta 7 (Cazorla 59min, 6), Villa 7, Torres 7
Scorers: Sweden: Ibrahimovic 34 Spain: Torres 15, Villa 90 Yellow cards: Sweden: Svensson Spain: Marchena
Referee: P Vink (Holland)