Spain secure place in final as Portugal pay the penalty

June 28, 2012 in Euro 2012, International

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Spain ensured they will defend their crown as European Champions after overcoming Portugal in a tense and tetchy semi-final last night. The reigning champions once again shut out the opposition, but this time needed a penalty shootout to secure victory, as mystery surrounded Cristiano Ronaldo’s position as fifth penalty taker for Portugal, who were out before their talisman even had a chance to step forward.

The drama of the penalty shootout was a given but the game itself entertained too, though not for all. Many viewers dismissed the first of the semi-finals as a boring and drab affair, which the scoreline may have suggested, but in truth, this was a compelling yet anxious tactical and mental battle.  There were few chances in normal time, the best of which came in the 91st minute when Portugal broke forwards from a Spanish corner, outnumbering the Spanish defence 4 to 3; Raul Meireles, who was tireless and tenacious on the night, played in Cristiano Ronaldo, who had ran the length of the field to keep up with the attack. Meireles’ pass was slightly behind Ronaldo, who had to readjust, but eventually sliced a left footed shot high and wide. Ronaldo looked to the heavens as he so often does, but a better pass and more composure would have surely seen Portugal win in the dying moments of the game.

The previous 90 minutes had been tight, with Portugal pressing endlessly and forcing Spain into several mistakes; even Xavi, often the safest pair of feet of them all, began to miscue, as Joao Moutinho and Raul Meireles chased and harried Spain’s endless midfield. Moutinho in particular was outstanding, working hard without the ball, and precise and confident with it. Paulo Bento must also be given credit for showing bravery, as he threw at least some caution to the wind and allowed his full backs to push up field well into Spanish territory - effective as a means of attack but also to help pen Spain back and disrupt their rhythm. Nani and Ronaldo proved to be dangerous on the break too, but if Portugal are to ever succeed at an international tournament, it seems certain they will require a better centre forward. Hugo Almeida, though hard working and strong, proved to be a wasteful foil for his supporting cast.

Yet for all of Portugal’s good work, Spain were massively disappointing, particularly in the first period, where the surprise selection of Alvaro Negredo failed to spring any surprises on the Portuguese defence who dealt with him with consummate ease. David Silva too was wasteful in possession, and both he and Negredo would be substituted early on in the second half. Spain reverted to type, deploying Cesc Fabregas as a ‘false 9′, which once again seemed to be an unnecessary and over-indulgent complication. Fabregas’ movement was smart as ever, but too often, Spain found that the more direct approach which Jesus Navas offered wrote only half of the script. Spain repeatedly found themselves in promising and, for Portugal, ominous positions, yet failed to create any clear cut chances.

Their first and only came in extra time when the mercurial Andres Iniesta, once again sparkling on the night, linked up with Jordi Alba (who has today signed for Barcelona where he will seek to continue his blossoming combination with Iniesta) but saw his shot miraculously saved by Rui Patricio. As time wore on, Portuguese legs began to give way, as Spain, with Iniesta deployed more centrally, began to take over and dictate tempo. Portugal, however, were resolute in their defence and frustrated Spain to earn a penalty shootout with the champions. Spain has been the better side, just, but Portugal’s admirable work ethic and tactics would have seen either side worthy finalists.

Patricio would make his second brilliant stop of the night, denying Xabi Alonso’s firm opening penalty kick by diving low to his left, but Portugal failed to capitalise, as Joao Moutinho failed to cap off a sterling performance, hitting his penalty at a saveable height, void of any significant power, with Casillas making the save. Spain would go on to convert each of their next four penalties, with centre backs Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos each taking two splendid penalties; Pique placing his right into the corner before Ramos, who lined up to smash his kick just as he did in the Champions League semi-final, coolly dinked the ball down the centre. The already heightened drama reached a sense of ridiculousness when Bruno Alves marched forwards to take Portugal’s third kick only to be sent back to the half way line by Nani, who had perhaps forgotten he was due next. The pressure of the slightly silly moment did not faze the winger, however, who sent his kick high into the top corner. When Ramos’ moment of class had passed, it was advantage Spain, and it seemed sure that Cristiano Ronaldo would step forwards to keep Portugal in the game.

Instead, the already nervous Bruno Alves walked to the penalty spot once more and looked visibly unsure, but with nobody behind to relieve him, Alves struck a firm but uncontrolled penalty which hit the angle and came back off the woodwork, it was match point Spain and Ronaldo hadn’t even stepped forwards yet. Cesc Fabregas would serve down an ace, just, slotting home off the post to send Spanish teammates and fans alike into raptures. Ronaldo stood and shook his head, but unlike he has done so many times before in frustration, the overriding emotion seemed to be of disbelief - what had just happened? Portugal had lost on penalties, and their star player and arguably best penalty kick taker had not even stepped forwards. It would transpire Ronaldo was fifth for Portugal, perhaps chasing the glory, perhaps taking the burden of the final kick, but it would not matter, Portugal never made it that far and were out. The BBC studio was unanimous in its view that Ronaldo should have gone first, though England should perhaps bite their tongues when discussing the right way to go about a penalty shootout. What is for sure is that Portugal’s script, whoever penned it, backfired massively. Ronaldo will rue not taking an earlier kick, just as he should rue the golden opportunity he spurned in the 91st minute, which would have saved him and his team-mates all the heart break.

Spain march forwards into their third consecutive final but look more vulnerable than they perhaps ever have done over the last four years. The winners of tonight’s semi final between Germany and Italy will feel they have a good chance to take on a currently less than plain sailing Spain. Yet the holders rode their luck and have come through another stern test with the victory in hand, and it would be surprising to see as underwhelming once again in the final, but if they are, they may just finally be tamed.