The first semi-final of Euro 2012 saw Spain sneak into their third successive major tournament final on penalties after the tightest of encounters against their Iberian rivals Portugal. Paulo Bento’s excellently-drilled side pushed the world champions all the way in a game as tightly-contested as Spain have been involved in for years.
Cesc Fabregas, who started on the bench, was the hero for Spain, scoring the winning penalty after Portugal’s Bruno Alves’ effort had hit the crossbar. There had also been drama earlier on in the shootout with both keepers saving the first penalty for each side.
Vicente del Bosque’s tactics proved to be the first shock of the night as he included a striker but not the one expected, with Alvaro Negredo starting in place of Fernando Torres.
Spain as ever began on the front foot, moving the ball with more zip than at any time previously in the tournament. Andres Iniesta in particular was looking his super-slick best and he was involved in creating the best chance of the half for Alvaro Arbeloa, who fired over from the edge of the area when he should have done better.
Portugal looked to focus on the counter-attack early on and Sergio Ramos was fortunate to escape a booking for a cynical foul on Nani as the winger threatened. The threat became more constant and Portugal actually enjoyed a spell midway through the half in which they kept Spain pinned in their own area. It was almost role reversal as the holders chased shadows on the edge of their own box albeit briefly.
Ronaldo was looking lively and fired Portugal’s best effort into the side netting, but the favourites gradually regained control and began playing their trademark patient stuff. The half ended with Ramos eventually picking up his yellow card for obstructing Ronaldo.
Early in the second-half Del Bosque reverted to zero strikers, introducing Fabregas for the ineffective Negredo. Portugal’s front man though, Hugo Almeida, was linking well with his midfield and had a couple of efforts as his side produced another decent spell.
The second half yielded few chances even though both sides looked capable of winning the game. Xavi had a chance to burst forward for Spain but his drive went straight at the keeper. At the other end a Ronaldo free kick dipped just over.
The bookings total really began to mount with the game very finely poised going into the last 15 minutes and it looked like we would be lucky to finish with the full compliment of players with extra-time looming.
Then came a huge chance for the underdogs to snatch it at the death. A break left Portugal with three against two and the ball fell to Ronaldo just to the left of the goal where he blazed his effort wide. It was by far Portugal’s best opportunity of the night. Despite the miss, they had been well worth the draw at the end of ninety minutes with Spain having only 56 per cent of possession, a low figure by their standards.
In extra time the holders’ experience began to tell and they regained the upper hand. The pressure soon told and great work on the left saw Jordi Alba set up Iniesta inside the area, only for Rui Patricio to deny the Barcelona star with an excellent save. Alba and substitute Pedro on Spain’s left flank were beginning to look especially menacing.
Sergio Ramos was next to threaten though, sending a free kick just over. Rui Patricio then spilled a well struck effort by Jesus Navas. The keeper was fortunate though and the ball came back to him off Pepe.
Paulo Bento to his credit, continued to be positive sending on Silvestre Varela for Raul Meireles. By this stage though, Spain’s dominance was absolute and Pedro broke into the box only for Fabio Coentrao to recover well and slam the door shut with penalties imminent.
Although the spot-kick lottery eventually saw Del Bosque’s side go through, they were given a real test by their neighbours and their La Liga stars appeared a little jaded at times. If as expected, they meet the youthful powerhouse that is Germany it will be interesting to see if they have one more big performance left in the tank. The extra day’s rest before the final could prove crucial even if they end up playing Italy.