Spain booked their place in the Euro 2012 final on Wednesday by shading a close semi-final against Iberian neighbours Portugal. Extra time and penalties were required to separate the two sides, with Spain’s eventual triumph meaning they have played their part in setting up a repeat of the Euro 2008 final, in which they beat Germany 1-0.
This game was the first competitive derby since Spain’s 1-0 win in the second round of the 2010 World Cup. David Villa had scored the decisive goal that day, and Spain could dearly have done with him last night as they struggled to a shoot-out win over a surprisingly positive Portuguese side.
The omens coming into the game were not looking good for Paulo Bento’s Portugal – despite rarely stepping out of second gear, Spain had conceded just once in the tournament so far, and had easily overcome France in the quarter-final despite playing without a recognised striker for much of the game.
Seemingly recognising that this tie would be tougher than the France game, Spain boss Vicente Del Bosque started with Sevilla forward Alvaro Negredo –an unusual choice given the fact that Negredo has just 12 caps to his name.
However, it was Portugal who dominated the opening exchanges here, with Bento’s men enjoying the game’s first shots and corners as they surprised Spain with their high pressure and intensity, which denied Spain the time and space to employ their attractive, infamous passing game to full effect.
Inevitably, the Spaniards soon recovered to establish a measure of control over the game – Portugal were predictably unable to keep this intensity up for 90 minutes. Before 15 minutes had elapsed, both Alvaro Arbeloa and Andres Iniesta had fired over from the edge of the box, and Spain’s higher-tempo passing demonstrated a side keen to step up through the gears.
Portugal, unsurprisingly, attempted to utilize the speed of wingers Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani to trouble Spain’s defence, and on 15 minutes the two combined to almost devastating effect. Ronaldo’s searching cross from the left by-line was brilliantly plucked from Nani’s head by Iker Casillas, denying Portugal a sure goal.
Ironically, Spain’s closest effort of the first half came from an uncharacteristic long ball into Negredo, which was eventually worked to Iniesta, the Barcelona man’s curling effort narrowly clearing Rui Patricio’s crossbar.
Portugal almost took the lead themselves on the half-hour through Ronaldo’s low left-foot drive, and the Real Madrid man’s threat was shown by Sergio Ramos’ 40th-minute booking for a crude foul on the winger. The Spanish defence, not troubled unduly in any of their previous games, was now struggling to keep tabs on Portugal’s attack.
Half-time came and went without an improvement in Spain’s fortunes, and just eight minutes into the second half, Del Bosque withdrew the largely anonymous Negredo in favour of Cesc Fabregas, reverting to a bizarre, but trusted, strikerless formation.
Portugal continued to match their illustrious opponents, with burly forward Hugo Almeida wasting two decent openings, followed by a second Spain player, a clearly annoyed Sergio Busquets, being cautioned for dissent. Indeed, Del Bosque again turned to the bench on the hour in an attempt to influence proceedings, replacing David Silva with Jesus Navas.
The change coincided with an upturn in Spanish fortunes: on 64 minutes Fabregas was upended by Joao Pereira on the edge of the box when set to go through on goal, and three minutes later, Xavi’s long-range effort into Rui Patricio’s midriff provided – unbelievably – Spain’s first shot on target of the game.
However, it was Portugal who enjoyed the better chances in the final 20 minutes, a succession of narrowly-over Ronaldo free-kicks being followed by a brilliant break-away being let down by the same man’s uncharacteristically-rushed finish.
Predictably, the start of extra time – combined with the fact that seven of the 22 players were on yellow cards – led to a slump in tempo. 13 minutes into the additional 30, Spain worked – and missed – the best opportunity of the match. Great work by substitute Pedro gifted Iniesta, but the Barcelona midfielder’s side-foot shot was brilliantly saved by Rui Patricio.
The goalkeeper had kept his country in the tournament, but as it became apparent that the match was headed for penalties, he would need to produce further heroics if Portugal were to progress.
Spain’s Xabi Alonso stepped up to take the first spot-kick – in the same goal he had scored in against France – but saw his kick saved by Patricio. Portugal’s first effort, taken by Joao Moutinho, was almost a mirror image – the Porto man’s shot was similarly saved by Iker Casillas.
Successful penalties from Iniesta, Pepe, Gerard Pique and Nani followed, leaving the pressure on Spain’s Sergio Ramos to regain the lead for his country. A brilliantly cool Panenka-esque penalty rubbed salt into Portugal’s wounds, which were further deepened by Bruno Alves seeing his effort cannon off the bar straight afterwards. The defender had mistakenly stepped up for Portugal’s third effort only to be sent on a walk of shame back to the half-way line upon finding it was Nani’s turn instead, and was clearly full of nerves as he belatedly took his penalty.
That miss meant that Fabregas had the chance to send his country to the final with Spain’s fifth spot-kick. Under huge pressure, an ice-cool Cesc told the ball to “make history” as he approached the penalty spot, and the ball duly obliged as the ex-Arsenal skipper sent Spain to their third successive major tournament final…via an agonizing bounce of the far post.
Having banked on the shoot-out coming down to the tenth kick, Ronaldo had positioned himself as Portugal’s fifth penalty-taker, and was clearly devastated not to have had a say in proceedings – although many felt Spain had just deserved the win over the 120 minutes, Ronaldo was seen to mutter “Injustica.. (injustice)” as Fabregas wheeled away in delight.
Portugal boss Paulo Bento later revealed that his side had planned for penalties, but in hindsight, both he and Ronaldo would have chosen the Real Madrid man for one of Portugal’s earlier efforts, rather than relying on the likes of Bruno Alves to keep them in the shoot-out.
Spain will face Italy (who somewhat surprisingly triumphed over Germany in the other semi-final) in the final on July 1, and despite a slow start here, they will still enter crowning showdown in Kiev with a great chance of winning their third tournament in a row.