Throughout this tournament, Spain have looked a team desperately scratching around for their mojo. In truth, they still are, despite reaching the last four of the World Cup for the first time in 60 years. But while David Villa remains this sharp, everything is possible.

Villa's late goal, his fifth of the tournament, was just enough to see off a Paraguay side that chomped and harried – often surprisingly high up the field – and never let their opponents settle.The outpouring of relief from Andrés Iniesta, named man of the match, was typical. "We knew it would be tough," he sighed, "but to be on the four best teams in the world is really great."

This was far from the liquid football that snaked through teams in Euro 2008, yet Spain's manager, Vicente del Bosque, was again able to make subtle corrections to the problems in front of him. Against Portugal the introduction of Fernando Llorente turned the game; last night it was bringing on Cesc Fábregas and playing Villa as a lone striker in a 4-2-3-1 formation, thus giving his team more control of the ball, that made the difference.

The common thread in both games was the early substitution of Fernando Torres, who again looked off the pace. Afterwards, Del Bosque explained his decision, saying he "wanted more ball possession. I wanted to dominate, we weren't doing enough with the ball."

He also defended Torres, claiming: "Physically he's fine. We took him off because the team wasn't really fine-tuning the game. He will have other chances in later games, we are very happy with what he is doing." But judging from Torres' expression when substituted, the man himself certainly isn't.

It is Torres's face that is plastered on billboards across South Africa, as if his success at this tournament was pre-ordained, but once again he played as if burdened by an iron vest.

There was the odd trick, true, but there were many more runs into blind alleys, followed by a frustrated shake of his head. Even now, four games into this World Cup, he looks like a player trying to shake off pre-season rust. But this is the biggest stage of them all.

As Spain waited to come out of the tunnel for the second half, their captain Iker Casillas put an arm round Torres, urging him on. It made little difference. In his three years in England, Torres has scored 56 times, but he has not scored for Spain in a year, and he never looked like changing that last night.

Torres was far from the only Spanish player to struggle to live up to his billing – although that may be down to Del Bosque's tactics of again playing two deep-sitting defenders, Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso.

With Xavi also dropping deep there were sometimes 30 yards separating midfield from attack, and – with Torres sometimes shunted on to the right wing as Del Bosque flip-flopped between 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 – there was little link-up play with the forward line either.

Still, just as they have throughout this World Cup, Spain found a way to squeeze through again – although they rode their luck in the second half.

Afterwards Iniesta insisted that the team's spirit is stronger that ever, adding: "David might be the best striker in the world but that is secondary, like my man of the match award. We are a squad that plays and fights together."

With two of the big guns, Brazil and Argentina have blown up over the weekend, Spain again find themselves installed as favourites. But Iniesta, for one, is not looking beyond his side's next opponents. "We've been following Germany throughout the World Cup and they are having a spectacular tournament," he said.

"But we are also at the top of our game. I think that the semi will be really beautiful." Everyone will certainly hope so – but on this evidence Spain still need to find another gear

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