JOHANNESBURG, June 18 – Title favourites Spain reached the Confederations Cup semi-finals on Wednesday and hosts South Africa edged closer to joining them.
The Spaniards achieved a world record-equalling 14th consecutive victory by an unexpectedly narrow 1-0 margin over gallant Iraq with David Villa heading the winner nine minutes into the second half.
And Serbia-based Bernard Parker was the two-goal hero as Bafana Bafana (The Boys) outplayed New Zealand and wasted numerous chances before settling for a 2-0 victory in the 2010 World Cup dress rehearsal.
Spain have six points, South Africa four, Iraq one and although pointless New Zealand are out of contention for the knockout phase, they could play a decisive role in determining the second Group A semi-finalist.
South Africa have much the harder final mini-league task against Spain in Bloemfontein Saturday while Iraq tackle New Zealand at the same time in Johannesburg, where the tournament began three days ago and ends on June 28.
If the host nation can exceed expectations and dodge defeat against the European champions they will advance, but a home loss coupled with an Iraqi victory would bring goal difference into play.
Coach Bora Milutinovic was true to his word as Iraq put 10 men behind the ball and played for a draw from the kick-off at Vodacom Stadium in the central city of Bloemfontein.
The policy worked remarkably well against a team showing four changes from that which overwhelmed New Zealand 5-0 last Sunday until a glancing Villa header off a Joan Capedevila cross gave impressive Mohammed Kassid no chance.
But the goal avalanche from a team unbeaten in 34 internationals since November 2006 never materialised and Iraq even ventured forward a few times in the closing stages without seriously threatening to equalise.
"It was a dream for my players to play against Spain and to put up that sort of performance really makes me proud. They played very intelligently. I’m very, very happy for Iraq," said widely travelled Serb Milutinovic.
Spain coach Vicente del Bosque also praised the Asian champions: "I congratulate Iraq for the way they played. They had a lot of dignity and made it very hard."
After a goalless draw with Iraq, South Africa had to triumph in the north west mining town of Rustenburg and arch predator Parker eased the pressure on Brazil-born coach Joel Santana.
"I’d like to thank my coach, who showed a lot of faith in me by starting me for this game. I liked the way we played, full of confidence," said the FIFA man of the match.
Bafana Bafana also had two goals disallowed for offside, failed to convert several good scoring chances and were thwarted by New Zealand goalkeeper Glen Moss on other occasions in a one-sided encounter.
Parker broke the deadlock midway through the first half by connecting with a Tsepo Masilela cross and his shot took deflections off a leg of Andy Boyens and a hand of Moss en route to the net.
The second goal was another Masilela-Parker duet with the former crossing and the latter flicking the ball across Moss into the far corner – a cue for the 35,000-plus Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace crowd to erupt.