With many touting Spain as favourites to retain their European crown this summer prior to the tournament, it was perhaps no surprise when they confirmed their place in the semi-finals. Their opponents, Iberian neighbours and ever-unpredictable Portugal, were in no mood to roll over, though. On the back of their successful group stage campaign, progressing at the expense of the refreshingly positive Danes and a disappointing Netherlands side, the Spaniards had a game on their hands.
Cristiano Ronaldo, previously criticised for his lack of performances on the international stage, went in to the game brimming with confidence, having scored three goals and struck the woodwork four times already. Add to that the growing stature of the midfield trio of Raul Meireles, Joao Moutinho and Miguel Veloso, with Nani an outlet on the flanks, Portugal had grounds for optimism.
Portugal started the game at a blistering pace, subjecting the Spanish defence to wave upon wave of probing attacks, without ever boasting any real, clear-cut chances. Yet, La Roja’s feathers were ruffled, and uncharacteristic mistakes began to creep in to their usually slick, measured game. Sergio Busquets hacked the ball in to touch with Miguel Veloso advancing, and Sergio Ramos was lucky to escape without a card as he cynically stepped across Ronaldo on several occasions.
Hugo Almeida had replaced the injury-stricken Helder Postiga, but never looked like troubling Casillas’ goal, blazing numerous half-chances high and wide, spurning Portugal’s best openings. At the other end, Alvaro Negredo, preferred to the patchy Fernando Torres and improvised use of Cesc Fabregas up front, had very little impact, chasing and harrying the Portuguese backline but never getting involved, his substitution in the 54th minute summing up his evening.
With Portugal’s failure to convert their chances during their first-half domination of possession, a Spanish backlash in the second half seemed inevitable. Without reaching their usual comfort zone, Del Bosque’s men certainly improved after the break. Andres Iniesta was slow to get started, but soon began exercising his familiar influence in the final third, picking the ball up from the deep-sitting Alonso and Busquets before springing David Silva and co on their way.
Enjoying by far the better chances throughout the game, Spain’s front men, as loosely defined as they were, consistently failed to make Portugal pay, Rui Patricio keeping them at bay with some fine instinctive stops with growing frequency as extra time loomed. By the same token, Portugal’s chances continued to pose little threat to the Spanish goal, Ronaldo blazing over from several of his trademark free-kicks, and from an optimistic left-footed volley following Moutinho’s clever knock-down.
Alas, no breakthrough was made in normal time, and it was again the job of extra-time to try and find a victor. Del Bosque and rival Paulo Bento fired their players up for an additional 30 minutes of battle, and the players didn’t disappoint. Despite a pedestrian pace strangling the early exchanges, the additional period was sparked in to life with the sides tiring; allowing space to open up in what was previously a congested midfield. Jordi Alba was one of few with seemingly boundless energy, relentlessly providing overlapping support and racing up and down the left wing. Indeed, it was he who provided the chance of the game, clipping the ball back to Iniesta whose contact was surprisingly tame, the goal gaping just yards away.
The number of players in the referee’s book grew as players’ concentration lapsed, and the game edged closer to providing the tournament’s second penalty shoot-out, following England’s ill-fated tie with Italy.
Barcelona’s Pedro, on as a late replacement for the quiet Xavi, ensured the lottery of penalties was to be the means of deciding the tie when his poor control and lack of conviction allowed the grateful Fábio Coentrão to get a vital toe to the ball, preventing what was a promising opening for Spain from curtailing the game just shy of the 120th minute mark.
And so, penalties were needed to determine who would face the winner of Germany and Italy in Sunday’s final in Kiev.
The order of the takers were decided, the overwhelming assumption that talisman Ronaldo would have the responsibility, as captain if nothing else, of taking the first Portuguese penalty bestowed upon him.
Spain’s Xabi Alonso, two-goal hero against France, was first up, but saw his commendable effort fantastically parried away by the sprawling Rui Patricio. Portugal in the driving seat, it was the surprise choice of Joao Moutinho who stepped up to strike their first kick. Following suit, the Porto midfielder was denied by the imperious Iker Casillas, the sides still to be separated.
Iniesta took an assured second for Spain to hand them the initiative, before a remarkable run of defenders charged with scoring their penalties saw Pepe and Pique both convert, Nani sending Casillas the wrong way, before Sergio Ramos dispatched his audacious ‘Panenka’ penalty, chipped past the agonising Rui Patricio.
The defender dominance continued as Bruno Alves made the long walk from the centre circle, primed to level the scores up once again. A powerfully-struck effort, the ball rattled back off the crossbar, to the dismay of the Zenit man and compatriots alike.
With that, it was down to former Arsenal man Cesc Fàbregas to send Spain to Kiev, and give them the platform to win a record third consecutive major tournament. Seeing his penalty ricochet in off the foot of the post, the players were sent in to delirium as they finally saw off the Portuguese threat.
With Cristiano Ronaldo not even getting the chance to take his penalty, Portugal will be left wondering what could have been, Ronaldo ruing yet another missed opportunity at international success.
With Germany many people’s tips to face Spain in the final, fans will now look to tonight’s game in Warsaw to scout the potential opponents to the victors of Iberia last night.