Can Portugal cause an Iberian upset?
When Portugal square up to neighbours Spain in the first Euro 2012 semi-final tonight few would disagree that they face a hugely-difficult task against the tournament favourites, current holders and world champions.
Spain’s record in recent competitive international fixtures is enough to strike fear into any side and leave the neutral thinking that the end result is a forgone conclusion. Deserved winners of the last two major tournaments, they are also totally undefeated in qualifying over the last four years, sweeping all before them on the way to both the last Euros and South Africa two years ago.
Add to this the manner of their victories, total domination where they gradually smother teams with relentless quick passing and probing attacks, and you find yourself thinking that it is going to be a huge ask for Paulo Bento’s side
In terms of reasons to be hopeful, one stands out above the rest. Portugal actually walloped Spain 4-0 in a friendly in November 2010. Vicente del Bosque took his newly-crowned world champions on a short trip to Lisbon and came back well beaten. On that night though, it has to be said they were off-form and Portugal played out of their skins. A repeat in a tournament semi-final is almost unconceivable.
Another fact that is often forgotten, although probably not in Switzerland, is that Spain lost their opening group game on the way to winning the World Cup two years ago. The Swiss win thanks to Gelson Fernandes’ goal remains Spain’s only defeat in competitive international football since the qualification began for Euro 2008. Fernandes also played a pivotal role in the Swiss rearguard action that day. His side defended doggedly and while Spain as usual, dominated the play, when they did create chances they spurned them as luck shined on the underdog. Spain’s defending for the goal was also highly suspect.
So what can Portugal do this time to give themselves the best possible chance? Here are three tactics that could definitely be worth a go.
Concentrate on set pieces
In dead-ball situations the playing field is levelled somewhat and defending the set play is not exactly Spain’s forte. Portugal will no doubt have been concentrating on this in training over the last few days. Good deliveries from any free-kick or corner will cause the world champions problems, and players who are good in the air, namely Cristiano Ronaldo and Pepe, should be a threat. Any unusual or rehearsed clever routine from the training ground my also catch them napping.
Use Ronaldo and Nani
Maybe a bit obvious given that Ronaldo is the best individual player at the tournament and that Portugal are likely to play on the break, but this is essential. Both the Real Madrid star and his compatriot are excellent direct dribblers and will be able to take on the Spanish full-backs, who are used to spending most of their time attacking. Spain’s defence in general is a chink in their armour. Running at the defenders is also likely to yield corners and free kicks. See above.
Don’t surrender possession
Bit of a tough one this, even so, Portugal need to give it a try. Spain’s legendary midfield may be superb in possession but on the rare occasions that they lose the ball they also hound and pressure the opposition to get it back. The main reason Spain’s record is as impressive as it is, is because they control the ball for the lion’s share of their matches. Every player on the Portuguese side is comfortable on the ball and if they can retain it themselves for periods and even up the possession percentages a bit, then their chances will improve.
Without doubt these are all more easily said than done, especially the latter but Portugal have a definite chance. Spain are not invincible and not on their best form. Italy gave them a decent game at the start of the tournament. Any side with Cristiano Ronaldo is sure to stand a chance and he will know all of his opponents really well, although of course that works the other way too. If Portugal can defend well, keep their discipline and make the most of any opportunity that comes their way then we should have a tight but entertaining contest.