Spain still have it all to do
Could this tournament be turning into a European bloodbath? Consider the troubled campaigns of the national teams representing the home countries of the world's richest leagues and you will notice that all are in imminent danger of embarrassing exits.
France, England, Germany and Italy: talented squads, all blessed with vast experience of the Champions League but unable to reflect club dominance on a continent new to the World Cup finals. Acclimatisation may prove to be key to lengthy advances at South Africa 2010 and all four have played with an air of unfamiliarity. With Portugal kicking into gear with a seven-balling of the North Koreans, perhaps Iberia, closest to Africa in geographical terms, can rise above the rest of their neighbours. A brushing aside of the Hondurans came with some ease, yet even Spain are not out of the woods yet.
Already defeated by fellow Europeans in the Swiss, the Spaniards are hoping that the return of their big-tournament curse is not in session. Back at last year's Confederations Cup, the swagger that had been apparent after their Euro 2008 victory was thrown out by unwitting defeat to USA at the semi-final stage. Defeat in Durban last week began the collywobbles again and worries of a group-stage exit in the style of France '98 have been manifesting themselves. Though comfortably superior here in a 2-0 win over Honduras, an edge of tension dripped through the waves of Spanish attacks.
In a group just as close as any of the eight, they may live to rue missed opportunities. For David Villa, even a night in which he scored two goals cannot be termed an unqualified success. A badly missed penalty may yet result in early exit or a bad knock-out draw. With Honduras looking likely to provide hugely beatable opposition for Switzerland in the final group game, only a victory against Chile will be enough for Spain.
Chile had earlier continued South America's so-far unblemished record with their narrow victory against Switzerland and in Marcelo Bielsa, have a wily fox in charge. Pretoria on Friday already had the look of a day of destiny for Vicente del Bosque's team even before they brushed aside the weak challenge of the Hondurans.
Another aim of Group H, aside from qualification, is to avoid a second-round meeting with Brazil, whose effortless and unflashy progress has gained them a further fear factor to go alongside their immense pedigree. Avoiding that may now be out of Spanish hands. It may depend on events in the corresponding group game in Bloemfontein.
This is a Spain team that dominates possession, plays with patience and is thus suited to controlling a game once a lead has been established. Conversely, as against USA last year and versus the Swiss at this tournament, their metronomic methods can allow a massed defence to frustrate their search for the perfect goal. That said, to repel them, defences need to be superior to that of the Hondurans, for whom depth of numbers did make up for lack of quality.
Villa's first goal saw him granted the freedom of downtown Johannesburg but by then it was already clear that Fernando Torres looks to have mislaid his Liverpool shooting boots. After that goal, Honduras were placed with an onus they would never be able to live up to, their territorial inferiority meaning any chances were to be snapped at. They finished the match having touched the ball only twice in the Spanish area.
Goal difference may yet be key to success and the avoidance of Brazil, and Spain's frequent attacks perhaps gained their own edge of nerves as a result of that. Torres, with his team's game based around patience in the light of their opponents' gameplan, was granted little of the breakaway stuff that has been so much a part of his Liverpool goal glut. Villa, a predator who bases his game on short bursts, is clearly more adapted to this style of play than his leggier middle-distance champion of a partner.
While two strikers were on the teamsheet, Villa actually played as a de facto left winger, with Torres acting as the attacking pivot. Jesus Navas largely disappointed as a right winger until his cut inside was converted for Villa's second goal, as the arch predator supplied comfort to Spain and the task of beating the Chileans began to hove into view as the focus.
Yet Villa denied himself the chance to follow Gonzalo Higuain as the second man to score a World Cup hat-trick here when smashing wide a penalty. The Ellis Park crowd gave an audible gasp of dismay after Villa's miss as Torres, who is beginning to learn a thing or two about missing chances, ruffled his pal's hair in rueful consolation.
A reflection of the riches of Spain's talent pool is the presence of Cesc Fabregas as a supersub/odd-job man. Clearly a favourite with the locals, for whom local satellite provides a prime view of the Premier League, he this time stood in latterly for Xavi, who had, as ever, been the midfield fulcrum. Fabregas' schooling in England makes him a far more direct option than Barcelona's engine, the man he is expected to one day replace and indeed play alongside before that at Camp Nou once this tournament ends and the transfer silly season begins.
In truth, an early surge apart, Fabregas was granted little chance to affect change but could yet find himself fielded from the start against Chile since Torres' form presented serious grounds for concern. His performance may yet see him sacrificed in a bid to win the Pretoria battle in midfield. However, coach Del Bosque sought to soothe doubts about both his English-based stars, speaking of how Fabregas, only just returning from injury, "contributed great quality" while attempting to dampen doubts about Torres.
"Fernando is a great player, he's very good for our team, he really knows how to play on the limits of offside," he said. "He's just recovered from an injury and isn't yet in top form and let's hope he can do better for us in our next match."
What had further reflected the ease of Spain's night had been the ability of both Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique to make themselves of use as a spare man in attack as Villa, chasing his hat-trick, was denied three further times after his spot-kick miss. By then, Spain's initial job of gaining a victory had been easily done though feelings of creeping uncertainty are unlikely to abate just yet.
As David Villa later correctly observed in words of some understatement: "Being world champions is still a long way down the road."
MAN OF THE MATCH: David Villa. Where the likes of Jesus Navas and Fernando Torres misfired, at least the Barca striker was capable of scoring from open play. How crucial that penalty miss may turn out in terms of avoiding Brazil will only be known on Friday evening.
SPAIN VERDICT: Del Bosque was clearly unhappy with his team, even going as far as to say post-match that they had played better against the Swiss. In truth, this cakewalk provided little guide to how this team can play when presented with quality opposition.
HONDURAS VERDICT: One of the teams who have been labelled as being here for the beer, the festival of football, yet they did not enjoy this evening. Passed to death and frustrated by constantly being unable to stay onside when they did get to attack, it was a despondent group who departed the field. "Today was different, a more open and more vulnerable opponent," summed up Del Bosque.
BRING OFF THE DANCING GIRLS? Every game sees spectators greeted at half-time by the sight of the McDonald's dancers. Game girls but their future may better lie in flipping burgers than any career in modern dance or equivalent.