And we have our first finalists! Reigning European and World Champion Spain have reached the final of Euro 2012 to face the winners of the Germany vs Italy second Semi Final. In a stop-and-go game which irritated both players and spectators and nerves were tested, a struggling Spain held out against Portuguese onslaught for 120 minutes and 8 spotkicks to hoist themselves to the final. This was the second consecutive game of the tournament to end goal-less in regulation and extra time and to be decided on penalties. Spain overcame their Iberian rivals four kicks against two in the game that was supposed to be an “El Classico”, named after the clash between Spainsh league giants Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, as both teams put together contain all the superstars from these two clubs save Argentinian Lionel Messi. But the game was far from any classic.
The Spain that we all know was missing this time. Where were the dazzling quick and short passes? Where were the quartet of Silva, Xavi, Xabi and Iniesta who played in harmony with the ball passing between them? Where were the solidarity and tactical execution? All was missing and Spain seemed to have collapsed under their own weight, though a goal by Portugal was never really forthcoming as they couldn’t really exploit all these Spanish weaknesses. Portugal played tactically and purposefully and stuck to their “Pass to Ronaldo till death” strategy while Spain, for the first time in the tournament, lacked conviction and struggled to gain control. Still there were few chances for either team.
The focus of the game was of course on Portuguese frontman Christiano Ronaldo, but he was far from the man we saw play against Holland and the Czech Republic. Though the Portuguese squad aim was to make the ball reach him, he consistently shot all the balls he got into the galleries. He was slated to take the last (winning) spotkick for Portugal, but sadly they didn’t last that long and he didn’t get a chance. Still, Portugal bound Spain tight throughout the game denying them chances and snatching the ball away from them. Spain struggled to gain control and find their footing, very unlike what we saw throughout the tournament. Their tiki-taka “passing machine” was misfiring and there was little tiki and no taka.
Vincent Del Bosque apparently convinced that his 4 – 3 – 3 experiment was working, went ahead and became even more adventurous, benching both Fernando Torres and Cesc Fabregas and putting Negredo in front. That strategy failed badly and you could feel the lack of a “head” in the Spanish attack. The game slipped out of Spain’s hands as soon as the first whistle but Portuguese runs at the goal were effectively thwarted by Pique and co. Spain came up with a few brilliant moves in the first half, but failed to fire, as Portugal wound them up tight with effective passes and better teamwork. Spain was beginning to look clueless as they are not used to being on the backfoot. Though the game attained blistering pace in between, it fell back as time progressed. Casillas denied Porugal thrice, once thwarting Ronaldo directly.
The second half saw he game taking a drastic turnaround with things getting rough. Portugal seemed to have it on their mind to repeat the Battle of Nuremberg as Spanish players fell in heaps all over the place and Portugal collected five yellow cars and Spain four. There were no goal chances being created and both teams seemed to be content in kicking each other than the ball. The ball was being taken out of play every few minutes. Ronaldo was particularly at the receiving end. Xavi Hernandez, Alvaro Negrado and David Silva were substituted and Cesc Fabregas, Jesus Navas and Pedro Rodriguez came in as Bosque tried to put in a bit of bite in the Spanish attack. This actually bore fruit in extra time. But the match had gone stale except Ronaldo firing a couple of shots over the crossbar. Spain got the chance of their game in extra time, when Andre Iniesta hit a point blank shot directly into Rui Patrício‘s arms, the only time he was really tested in the game. Extra time was far more exciting than the second half.
Xabi Alonzo took the first kick for Spain, only for it to be saved by Patricio. Before Portugal could get over their happiness, João Moutinho was also denied by Iker Casillas. Iniesta and Sergio Ramos hit home for Spain while Pepe and Nani found their target for Portugal. But then Bruno Alves missed as his shot went wide. Being one ahead, Fabregas finished things off when his shot hit the right post and rolled into the net. Spain were through, heartbreak for Ronaldo who was waiting to take the last kick and Portugal was out.
What happened here? Though no one expected either team to sail through, Spain had some sort of an upper hand as favorites because of their performance in the tournament so far. And Portugal was successful in trying Spain up in little knots, something no other team has been able to do in this tournament. Sadly, Portugal and their overwhelming focus on one man alone did not help things either. It comes to mind that epic quarterfinal of Euro 2004 where Portugal trounced England on penalties (yeah, the one where Beckham missed it). The then goalkeeper Ricardo took the last shot and it went in. Ricardo was on the bench this time. Maybe he should have played? Anyway, Portugal can go home content that they held up the best team in the World. Spain on the other hand, can get ready aiming at that historic moment of laying hands on the third consecutive international trophy the first time in history.