Confederation Cup: Smiles for Spain, relief for South Africa

June 21st, 2009 - 3:32 pm ICT by IANS  

Fernando Torres By Brendon Hanley
Bloemfontein, June 21 (DPA) Hosts South Africa claimed a place in the semi-finals of the Confederation Cup despite going down 0-2 to Spain Saturday at the Free State Stadium in Bloemfontein in their final Group A game.

The European champions got second-half goals from David Villa and substitute Fernando Llorente to finish atop the group with seven points from three matches, three clear of South Africa. Iraq finish third on two points after playing out a scoreless draw with New Zealand in the other group game.

The Spanish were already assured of a spot in the last four ahead of the clash, but they claimed a new world record by winning their 15th consecutive international and equalled Brazil’s mark of 35 matches unbeaten.

“We’re very happy and proud of the record,” said man of the match Xavi. “It wasn’t an easy match, but we have a lot of momentum and are feeling confident.”

La Furia Roja will now most likely meet Egypt or Italy on Wednesday in Bloemfontein, while Bafana Bafana are all but assured of taking on Brazil in the other semi-final Thursday at Ellis Park in Johannesburg.

“We don’t care who we play. It will be great experience for us,” said South Africa’s Brazilian-born coach Joel Santana. “It’s very good for my team to play against quality sides like Spain or Brazil or Italy, because it helps prepare us for the World Cup next year.”

South Africa matched Spain’s workrate but lacked the necessary composure in the final third against the top-ranked team in the world.

Spain’s first chance came as early as the fourth minute, but Albert Reira’s long-range effort was punched clear by Itumeleng Khune, and the South African goalkeeper also had to be at his best after 34 minutes to deny Fernando Torres.

South Africa’s best chance of the half was made by Steven Pienaar in the 38th minute and fell to Bernard Parker, but the striker blazed over.

Pienaar was once again the provider three minutes before the break, but this time it was Teko Modise who blasted wide.

“We were not worried about playing Spain,” said Pienaar. “We believe in our ability, and we stuck with them in the first half and could have scored some goals.”

However, Spain took control after the restart with Xavi going close with a free-kick before Aaron Mokoena hauled down Cesc Fabregas in the area to concede a penalty in the 51st minute.

Khune superbly saved Villa’s subsequent spot-kick and blocked the follow-up effort by Carles Puyol to keep the sides level.

The reprieve was only temporary as Villa controlled a cross from Riera, which the South African players complained was handball, before firing home.

“They’re not the number-one team in the world for nothing,” said Pienaar. “If you don’t stay organised, they punish you, and that’s what happened. We are just happy to go through.”

Central defender Matthew Booth admired the cutting edge of Spain.

“I think we just got a bit too excited after the penalty save,” he said. “And against a team like Spain, they know how to take advantage of that. It was a learning experience for us, playing them.”

With South Africa tiring, spaces began opening up, and Llorente made it 2-0 after connecting with a mishit shot from Fabregas.

Parker came closest to pulling one back for the Bafana six minutes from time but fired his shot straight at Spain goalkeeper Jose Reina.

“It’s bittersweet for sure,” Booth said, after advancing without winning. “It’s not very nice to rely on another team to get a result, but we’re through, which is a huge relief for us. It’s a lot of pressure off our shoulders, and I think you’ll see us be even more competitive in the semi-finals, no matter who we play.”

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