UEFA Euro 2012 has its first finalist. Vicente del Bosque’s Spain took on a Portugal side whose pre-match prospects were defined by the media simply as the result of whether Cristiano Ronaldo could beat the Spanish on his own. Portugal pressed well and battled hard and smart (take note, England), taking the game to what would prove a heart-breaking penalty shoot-out with a notably absent talisman.
Spain advance to the final, now one game away from an historical third consecutive major tournament triumph.
Portugal 0-0 Spain (aet) (Semi-Final)
Spain win 4-2 on penalties
For much of the first half the Portuguese offered a masterclass in how to play against Spain. Whether the same approach would work against a Spain team with David Villa is up for debate but in Donetsk Paulo Bento’s men got it just right early on. They put Spain under pressure straight away by working hard but certainly not being negative. Spain were rarely able to keep possession in their favoured style and Portugal’s willingness to attack in numbers played a big part in that.
The key was Portugal’s pressing game, which was aggressive and very fast all over the pitch. Any hesitation – I suppose it’s “thoughtfulness” as we’re talking about Spain – was punished, and Portugal carried a threat thanks to a bright performance on the right by Nani and Ronaldo’s habit of always looking on the brink of doing something brilliant. Only the shots on goal were missing, and that didn’t change for the duration.
But while the teams were about equal in terms of chances created, the better pair fell for Spain. Andres Iniesta, for me at something approaching his very best this in this tournament so far, came close and arguably should have done better. Instead of taking one touch (or none) and striking across Rui Patricio with his left foot, Iniesta pondered, side-stepped onto his right foot and bent a measured effort just over the bar. Alvaro Arbeloa’s earlier right-footed shot from the edge of the penalty area should undoubtedly have tested the goalkeeper, but flew over.
This was not a boring Spain, but it wasn’t an intimidating Spain either. They changed their attacking shape by bringing Cesc Fabregas on for Alvaro Negredo early in the second half but it was Portugal who pushed on first from that point, just as the game became slightly chippy and the referee went to his pocket with increasing frequency. The match became noticeably stretched in the middle of the second half as Spain kicked up a gear and looked for the opening goal with more urgency – the presence of substitute Jesus Navas helped to dictate that shift.
Spain gradually took more and more control of the game but struggled to create any real opportunities to score as the game really lost its way in the second half and spiralled off into an extra 30 minutes with only a last-minute Portuguese counter-attack to show for it. With four men flying towards goal, Raul Meireles’ pass to Ronaldo did him no favours and the chance passed with the Real Madrid man blazing over.
Extra time offered little until the end of the first period. Navas’ bizarre scooped shot was kept in by Pedro on the left touchline, and some magnificent skill from him eventually led to a burst into the box by Jordi Alba. He laid the ball back for Iniesta, but Patricio was equal to his shot. Sergio Ramos followed up with a fantastic shot from a free kick that just whistled over.
Spain did get things moving in the second period of extra time and looked far more dangerous than their opponents, but it was too little, too late – Euro 2012 had its second penalty shoot-out.
The first two kicks were missed but after Spain’s Ramos chipped penalty Bruno Alves – after heading towards the spot prematurely – hit the crossbar. Fabregas stepped up to win it and did so with a kick that bounced in off Patricio’s right-hand post. Ronaldo was presumably down for the fifth penalty for Portugal, a frustrating decision that eventually resulted in him not getting a kick.
The difference between two penalties that hit the woodwork sends Spain to Sunday’s final in Kiev. There, they will face Germany or Italy – and they’re capable of putting on an entertaining semi-final without too much persuasion.