World Cup winners Spain defeated Nigeria 3-0 with two goals from Jordi Alba and another from Fernando Torres on Sunday to set up a semifinal showdown with Italy in the Confederations Cup.
Although the final score was emphatic, it could have been much closer if Nigeria had accepted some of their many clear chances in the first half. At times Spain looked vulnerable to the African champions' fast breaks.
Thursday's rematch in Fortaleza will be a chance for Italy to get even for a humiliating 4-0 loss to Spain in last year's European championship final.
"For us, Italy is a challenge in front of us as we try to get to the final," Spain coach Vicente del Bosque said. "I imagine for Italy it's very important because the loss is fresh in their minds from the European final, and I am sure they are thinking of revenge."
'For us, Italy is a challenge in front of us as we try to get to the final. I imagine for Italy it's very important because the loss is fresh in their minds from the European final, and I am sure they are thinking of revenge.' — Spain coach Vicente del Bosque
Alba, a left-sided defender, scored in the third minute to set the wide-open tone for the match. The goal capped off a series of one-touch passes with Pedro backheeling a clever ball to Andres Iniesta, who found Alba. His low shot beat keeper Vincent Enyeama.
Torres scored with a header in the 62nd minute, and Alba picked up his second in the 88th as Nigeria sought to score.
Alba was named man of the match. He said it was a first for him.
"This is new for me," he said. "This kind of award usually goes to the types who regularly score goals."
With this win, Spain extended its unbeaten string to 25 matches. But it was on the defensive more than usual against the young Nigerian side — particularly in the first half.
Nigeria played fast-flowing football in the first half creating about as much possession, just as many chances and regularly beat the World Cup winners to loose balls.
"Nigeria was tough for us," Alba said. "Not just the first half, but the whole game. I have to praise them for playing like that against a team like we have."
Spain had played Nigeria only once before, losing 3-2 in the 1998 World Cup.
Only poor finishing let Nigeria down, with Joseph Akpala and Sunday Mba squandering chances before the break.
Spain's striker Roberto Soldado could also have had two but for sprawling saves by Nigerian keeper Vincent Enyeama. Cesc Fabregas also hit the post.
Nigeria can't score
Nigeria's Gambo Muhammad missed an open goal in the second half with Spanish keeper Victor Valdes out of position, a prime example of the team's poor finishing.
"I think we have so much anxiety in front of the goal line," Nigeria coach Stephen Keshi said. "The good thing is we are creating chances, but we're not finishing. And that's something we need to work on. Hopefully it is going to come quickly."
The match settled down in the second half with Spain keeping more possession. Nigeria also settled into a less physical game, perhaps tiring from the heat and high humidity in the tropical northeast of Brazil.
Torres' goal settled matters.
Three minutes after coming on, he scored with a diving header from a cross from Pedro. Four minutes later the Chelsea striker was in alone again, but lofted a close-up shot high over the crossbar.
Alba got his second in the 88th, dribbling around keeper Enyeama and scoring into an empty net.
Nigeria heads home with mixed results. It arrived late from Africa for the first match after a threatened strike over disputed bonus payments. The African champions won only one match in the Confederations Cup, beating tiny Tahiti 6-1 and losing 2-1 to Uruguay.
Spain will be hoping for better fortune in this semifinal. Four years ago it reached the semifinals but was beaten by the United States.
Spain has won the last two European championships and the 2010 World Cup and is trying to add the Confederations Cup title, the only major title it lacks.