Penalties take Spain to Euro 2012 final
Spain became only the second team to reach the final of three successive major tournaments when defeating Portugal 4-2 on penalties in Donetsk after their Euro 2012 semi-final ended goalless after extra-time.
Where West Germany failed in 1976, Spain now have the chance to become the first team to retain their European title, and win three international tournaments in succession, after Cesc Fabregas slotted the ball home from 12 yards to punish Portugal's Bruno Alves, whose penalty had struck the bar.
Rui Patricio and Iker Casillas had saved the two opening penalties from Xabi Alonso and Joao Moutinho before Alves, who had originally attempted to take the third spot kick before being sent back by Nani, hit the woodwork after Sergio Ramos had emulated Andrea Pirlo by executing a perfect Panenka.
Cristiano Ronaldo, held back for the fifth spot kick that never came, could only look on helplessly as Fabregas put Spain through - just as the midfielder did when winning the Euro 2008 quarter-final shoot-out against Italy that set Spain on course for a spell of international domination that may prove to be the most complete football has seen.
Now only Germany or Italy stand between Spain and footballing immortality, even if they will have to improve on a performance at Donbass Arena that was rather unconvincing for large swathes of normal time.
Having flitted between a false nine in Fabregas and a slightly less false nine in Fernando Torres throughout the tournament so far, Del Bosque’s team selection proved contentious as he gave a first start at Euro 2012 to Alvaro Negredo, the Sevilla striker who only three years ago was a target for Phil Brown at Hull City.
Portugal’s only change was an enforced one as Hugo Almeida came in for the injured Helder Postiga, with Paulo Bento going toe-to-toe with Spain in an expansive 4-3-3 formation. Having shunned the temptation to adopt a defensive strategy in the face of Spain’s daunting arsenal, as France regrettably did in the quarter-finals, Portugal were rewarded with an excellent first-half performance.
Pressing with an intensity that is usually the hallmark of their Iberian neighbours, unafraid to be ambitious when on the ball and full of dangerous intent on the break, Portugal looked keen to prove that not every game involving Spain has to follow the same narrative of suffocating possession from the team in red – a narrative that has led many to label Spain, somewhat unfairly, as boring.
Instead it was an even contest in Donetsk, even if Spain took the early initiative. The first clear chance fell to Alvaro Arbeloa after the ball rolled into the path of the defender when a pass from Andres Iniesta was not controlled by Negredo. Hitting the ball first time, his effort flew over the bar.
Iniesta then fired a shot over from range as Spain threatened to take control, but Portugal’s up-tempo approach denied them the chance to settle and Ronaldo quickly demonstrated the threat he possesses when racing clear on the left and whipping in an excellent cross that Casillas plucked out of the air before it reached Nani at the back post.
Portugal’s commendably proactive approach was personified by the figure of Moutinho in midfield, as he pressed with enthusiasm without the ball and was always positive when in possession. Moutinho found Ronaldo with one clever backheel, allowing the forward to thump a volley over the bar, and then robbed Jordi Alba before playing in Ronaldo again, Portugal’s captain hitting his low shot just wide.
Spain were possibly feeling the effects of having two days’ fewer rest than their opponents as they uncharacteristically wasted possession on a number of occasions, and the decision to start Negredo had clearly disrupted the dynamic of their attack, but they still carved out of the best chance of the first half when Iniesta’s first touch from a Xavi pass gave him space in the box and the midfielder opened up his body to curl a shot narrowly over.
The second half was only seven minutes old when Del Bosque abandoned his curious experiment with Negredo, the striker having completed only eight passes all match. Instead of calling on Torres though, he ordered Fabregas to strip off and reinstated the 4-6-0 formation that places the Barcelona midfielder at the apex of the Spain attack.
The plan was to exert more mastery on the ball and pull Portugal’s defence apart in a more subtle fashion. Meanwhile, for Portugal, Almeida opted for a rather more rudimentary approach, hammering two poor efforts off target when instead he should have looked for a team-mate in a position more conducive to testing Casillas.
Spain still lacked penetration though and David Silva was replaced on 60 minutes after an uncharacteristically quiet night, the Manchester City midfielder being replaced by Jesus Navas, more of a natural winger on the right of la Roja’s attack and the scorer of the late winner in the final group game against Croatia.
In a game that resolutely refused to catch fire, Xavi tested Patricio with a firm drive from 25 yards while Ronaldo – a much more peripheral figure than in his previous matches against Netherlands and Czech Republic, and failing to score in three consecutive games again for his country – saw a trademark free-kick fly just over the bar. Another missed the target with five minutes remaining.
As the seconds ticked by, Portugal suddenly had a fantastic opportunity to win the game when hitting Spain on the break following a free-kick in the final third for their opponents. Raul Meireles took the ball through the centre and only had to slip in Ronaldo. However, he weighted the pass poorly and the captain shot wide, ensuring a poor match that had featured just two shots on target would be extended by 30 minutes.
Portugal retreated into their shell in the extra period as they began to suffer from fatigue, allowing Spain to gain control of the match. Indeed, they should have won the game in extra-time and only a tremendous save from Patricio prevented them from taking the lead after 104 minutes. Alba did superbly well to wriggle his way into space in the box and pulled the ball back for Iniesta, whose first-time effort was palmed clear by the Portugal keeper.
In what had become a rather cynical contest – with all of the Portugal back four on a booking – Pepe began to lose his head and committed a couple of dirty fouls as well as slyly kicking out at Pedro. One foul conceded by the Real Madrid defender allowed Ramos to hammer a wonderful free-kick just past the woodwork.
Patricio was alert again in the second period of extra-time when he flung himself low to his right to repel a low shot from Navas, but was somewhat fortunate not to concede an indirect free-kick after Pepe touched the loose ball back into his gloves.
Spain looked keen to avoid penalties and spurned a wonderful opportunity to win the game with just five minutes remaining. Fabregas touched the ball round the corner to Pedro but the Barcelona forward got the ball stuck under his feet as he threatened to burst clear on goal and had to check right, allowing Coentrao to come across and make a crucial interception.
But though Portugal held out for 120 minutes, they could not depose Spain on penalties with Del Bosque’s side now just one match away from becoming the greatest international team in the history of the game.