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ON SOCCER

What were they doing?

Germany plays it too safe and Del Bosque substitutes for Villa, but it's Spain that reaches title game.

July 08, 2010|GRAHAME L. JONES

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — Did Germany's coach lose his nerve?

Did Spain's coach lose his page in the script?

Those were the questions that immediately rose to the surface in the wake of a 1-0 Spanish victory over Germany on Wednesday night that saw the reigning European champion move on to its first World Cup final.

The Germans, meanwhile, have to be content with the insignificance of the third-place match, and that will not go down very well in Munich or anywhere else on the other side of the Rhine.

Some clarification is in order.

Germany had swept through the tournament -- but for the minor road bump that was Serbia -- and was, in the minds of many, favored to get to Sunday's final.

It had the pedigree. It had the players.

It had speed. It had power. It had forwards who could find the back of the net, midfielders who could create scoring opportunities, and defenders who could deny them.

It had the backing of an entire nation that had, vicariously and in person, lived and breathed every delicious moment of Coach Joachim "Jogi" Loew's amazing World Cup ride.

The young Germans were the heirs apparent to the World Cup-winning sides of 1954, 1974 and 1990. Twenty years without another trophy is far too long in German eyes.

So the fans loved Loew's lucky blue sweater. They loved the predictions of an octopus named Paul (until he "forecast" a Spanish triumph) and they loved the fact that their team was not only winning but playing extremely well.

But Loew let them down.

For reasons that are perplexing to say the least, he sent a team out onto the Moses Mabhida Stadium pitch in Durban that was intent on defending, intent on stopping Spain from scoring, rather than trying to score itself.

Why?

Germany had found the back of the net 13 times in its first five games and had given up only two goals. It had scored eight goals in the knockout round. There was nothing wrong with continuing to play in the same fashion.

Granted, the Spanish are a vastly different team when compared to, say, technically inept England or devoid-of-talent Australia, but surely attacking them would have been the better course.

Argentina was taken apart seam by seam in the quarterfinals by a German side that relished carrying the game to the opposition. Had Germany followed that path Wednesday, the outcome might have been different.

Of course, it might have been different anyway if Spain Coach Vicente del Bosque had lost the astonishing gamble he took late in the match. It could well have cost Spain its victory.

With nine minutes plus injury time to go and Spain ahead, 1-0, courtesy of the most memorable goal shaggy-haired Carles Puyol will ever score in his life -- unless he gets another on Sunday -- Del Bosque took striker David Villa off the field.

This is the same Villa who had scored five of Spain's seven goals, the same Villa who shares the tournament lead in goals with Dutch midfielder Wesley Sneijder, the same Villa who is absolutely vital to Spanish hopes.

To yank him from the game while protecting only a one-goal lead seemed to border on lunacy. The Germans can never be counted out. They have a long, long history of coming back from untenable positions to salvage victories.

There were nine minutes left, not one or two. One miscue, one bit of luck, good or bad, could have changed everything. If Germany had scored and the game had gone to extra time, who would have provided the needed Spanish goal? Fernando Torres, who came on in Villa's place? Not likely. He is a shadow of the player whose goal beat Germany, 1-0, in the European final two years ago.

No, it was a massive risk by Del Bosque, and if it had backfired he would have been pilloried all the way from Asturias to Andalucia, and deservedly so.

Instead, he now has three-plus days to plot the downfall of a Dutch team that is every bit as skilled as his own, but with an added measure of steel.

Spain-Netherlands promises to be an intriguing final, one that neutral fans (are there such animals?) would have wished to see before this whole adventure kicked off almost one month ago. Finally, there will be a new name on the World Cup trophy.

Sometimes, wishes do come true.

Sometimes lucky sweaters come unraveled.

--

grahame.jones@latimes.com

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