David Villa's fifth goal in five games took him to the top of the World Cup scoring charts and carried Spain into the last four of the tournament, just as hard-working Paraguay thought they had done enough to take the game to extra time.

Just eight minutes remained on the clock when Villa's strike did what three earlier penalties had failed to achieve and broke a deadlock that was beginning to look permanent, and though Paraguay are not the sharpest attackers around it required a smart double save from Iker Casillas in the closing seconds to stop Lucas Barrios or Roque Santa Cruz salvaging an equaliser that would not have been undeserved.

Spain will need to improve their passing game in the semi-final against Germany, they were not as slick as usual here and Xabi Alonso and Fernando Torres were withdrawn early.

The billing as tournament favourites does not seem to sit easily with Spain. It did not before Brazil and Argentina went out, and it still does not. Perhaps they are unfamiliar with the situation, perhaps not as adept at handling the pressure as, say, Germany, who seem to do well whether they are fancied or not.

Spain did not start this game with any great purpose or authority, and it was Paraguay who created the best chances in the first half hour. Jonathan Santana brought a save from Iker Casillas as early as the first minute, and Cristian Riveros headed over shortly afterwards.

With David Villa stationed wide on the left and Torres out on the right Spain lacked any obvious focus to their attack. Villa did manage to reach the byline once for a cross that was cut out by Antolín Alcaraz, but Torres was still only showing glimpses of what he is capable of and Spain were relieved when Alcaraz stole behind their defence midway through the first half but could not climb high enough to reach the cross.

If that was an escape from Alcaraz, the Paraguayan defence had a reprieve of their own after half an hour when Xavi turned and sent a volley only inches over Justo Villar's bar.

After the shocks in the other quarter-finals and the almost impossibly dramatic events of Ghana v Uruguay this final last-eight game was a slow burner. Paraguay definitely created the most promising situations in the first half, but when the unmarked and perfectly placed Santana failed to get his head on to a gem of a cross from Claudio Morel just before the interval, it became all too easy to see why goals have been a problem for the South Americans in this tournament. They came into this match having scored three, all from defenders, which is fewer than Villa has managed on his own.

Paraguay do not seem to enjoy much luck either. When Nelson Valdez brought a cross down expertly and beat Iker Casillas on the stroke of the interval the goal was rather harshly ruled out for offside against Oscar Cardozo, who may have been a fraction too far forward at the start of the move but who never got anywhere near the ball.

Spain clearly needed to do something inventive to counteract Paraguay's stifling pressing game, so 11 minutes into the second half Vicente del Bosque sacrificed Torres and sent on Cesc Fábregas. The Arsenal captain came on just in time to see three penalties in the space of four minutes, without the score even changing. Carlos Batres did exceptionally well to spot Gerard Piqué wrestling Cardozo to the floor at a corner, though when the same Paraguay player took the kick he hesitated fractionally too long and Casillas made a good save.

Two minutes later Alcaraz went through the back of Villa and Alonso scored confidently from the spot, only to be halted in mid-celebration because the referee had detected a marginal amount of Spanish encroachment. Alonso had to retake the kick and this time Villar saved, though unless his eyesight failed him the Guatemalan official bottled out of awarding a fourth penalty when the Paraguay goalkeeper illegally prevented Fábregas from reaching the rebound.

While Spain could point out with some justification that there had been encroachment at the Paraguayan penalty too, at least the pantomime brought the game to life a little bit. Villar needed to make a second good save from Andrés Iniesta's shot from open play, and Xavi went close again as Spain began to exert more pressure.

In keeping with what had gone before, the winning goal contained equal parts skill and comedy. Iniesta's weaving run deserved a goal, and when he unselfishly squared to the better-placed Pedro it looked like it would bring one. Pedro hit the post, and even when Villa seized on the rebound and sent in a shot, the ball this time managed to bounce off both uprights before trickling over the line. They all count, but losing in such a manner was cruel luck on Paraguay.

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