Portugal's striker Hugo Almeida (L), midfielder Deco Souza (C) and striker Cristiano Ronaldo share a laugh during a training session. - AFP Photo

Spain vs Portugal

 Fernando Torres has yet to spark into life at the World Cup although Spain’s Euro 2008 hero has the ideal stage to rediscover his best form in Tuesday’s last-16 clash with neighbours Portugal.

After returning from knee surgery shortly before the tournament, Torres was overshadowed by strike partner David Villa in the European champions’ three Group H matches and looks well short of his devastating best.

While Villa netted three times, including two of the finest goals so far in South Africa, Torres squandered several chances and looked a shadow of the player who scored a brilliant winning goal in the Euro 2008 final against Germany.

“It’s not easy coming back after an operation,” the 26-year-old said in an interview with Spanish radio on Saturday.

“I think I still have a little way to go before I am back at 100 percent, although I am close,” he added.

Vicente del Bosque is likely to keep faith with Torres alongside Villa in a two-pronged attack as the Spanish seek to become the first team to score against the resilient Portuguese at this World Cup.

The Spain coach has been at pains to point out that there is more to Torres than goals, noting that the powerful forward has an important role in sowing chaos among defenders.

“The main thing is that he played in the three (group) matches, he has been making progress in his preparation and he is better,” Del Bosque told reporters on Saturday.

“He may not have scored but he helps us by being a menace for the opposition’s defence,” he added. “And when he gets into space he is always a very dangerous player.”

Spain and Portugal, who have never met at a finals, know the winners at Cape Town’s Green Point Stadium will avoid the big guns with Paraguay or Japan waiting in the last eight.

Del Bosque and Portugal coach Carlos Queiroz both have injury concerns, with Spain midfielder Xabi Alonso doubtful after spraining an ankle against Chile and Portugal winger Danny struggling with a left thigh injury.

Midfielder Deco has recovered from the hip problem that ruled him out of Portugal’s final two Group G games and Spain central defender Raul Albiol, who has been an unused substitute thus far, is sidelined after being injured in training.

Portugal also have seven players on yellow cards: Cristiano Ronaldo, Pedro Mendes, Hugo Almeida, Pepe, Tiago, Fabio Coentrao and Duda, while the Spanish have not collected a single caution.

Midfielder Javi Martinez, who would likely replace Alonso in Spain’s starting lineup, also jumped to Torres’s defence.

“Fernando has been bringing a lot to the team,” the 21-year-old, who was a surprise inclusion in the squad and has made only three appearances for the European champions, told a news conference on Sunday.

“The space he opens up is fantastic for us and I am sure he will rediscover his top form in the next few matches.”

The showdown in Cape Town has an intriguing subtext as Queiroz was the man Real Madrid president Florentino Perez brought in to replace Del Bosque when he ditched him at the end of the 2003 season.

Del Bosque had steered Real to two European Cups and two league titles in 3-1/2 years and was upset at his treatment, which he called “unjust, aggressive and insensitive”.

Real captain Fernando Hierro, who was also discarded in the cull, is now the Spanish national team’s sporting director.

Paraguay vs Japan

Japan may never have a better opportunity to bring Asia’s woeful World Cup record against South American opposition to an end than when they face Paraguay in the second round in Pretoria on Tuesday.

No Asian team have ever beaten a South American side at the World Cup. Of the 10 encounters between the continents, South America have won eight times with two games drawn — North Korea v Chile 1-1 in 1966 and South Korea v Bolivia 0-0 in 1994.

However, Japan’s flying form in the group stage this time around makes them strong candidates to break that jinx and qualify for the quarter-finals for the first time.

While Paraguay topped a group that included world champions Italy, Slovakia and New Zealand they have rarely shown the attacking verve expected of a team featuring top-class forwards Roque Santa Cruz, Lucas Barrios and Nelson Valdez.

Japan, meanwhile, have been one of the tournament’s delights with their free-flowing attacking style and set-piece mastery.

After dominating Denmark 3-1 in their final group game, striker Keisuke Honda, who scored a stunning 30-metre freekick, has now set his sights on a place in the last eight.

“For me, for the team, the next game is more important because we want to show the Japanese people that nothing is impossible,” he said.

Japan have also shown the rest of the teams at the World Cup that scoring direct from a freekick with the much-maligned Jabulani ball is far from impossible.

Honda and Yasuhito Endo scored stunners in the same game against Denmark and defender Tulio, who has declared himself fit after picking up a knock against the Danes, said Japan could exploit their set-piece superiority again.

“They (Paraguay) will be trying everything on to rile us.Every goal is so much more precious now in this knockout stage and it is important we try to get our noses in front first,” he told fifa.com. “One thing we will have to try and do is vary our set-pieces to surprise them.”

Paraguay would be happy to get goals from anywhere at the moment after a lacklustre 0-0 draw with New Zealand in the final group game highlighted their shot-shy struggles.

Defender Julio Cesar Caceres said Paraguay were not satisfied with just reaching the second round, which they had achieved three times before.

“We’re happy that we went through the first round but our objective is to keep writing history and the match against Japan is the most important thing,” he said.

“We are capable of playing a great match. Japan is a quick team, we have to think about every detail against them.”