The Euro 2012 semi-finals swing into action on Wednesday night, with world champions and red-hot favourites Spain taking on their Iberian neighbours Portugal for a place in the final. Vicente del Bosque’s men go into the clash highly-fancied, but with local rivalry and Cristiano Ronaldo in-form, this should be a mouth-watering clash.
Spain have looked comfortable but uninspiring in the competition to date, and although La Roja are unbeaten in Ukraine and Poland, they are not showing the scintillating form that led them to glory in 2008 and 2010. A draw against Italy has been followed by victories over Republic of Ireland, Croatia and France, with eight goals scored and only one conceded.
Del Bosque’s tactics and selected formation for this clash will be interesting, given that he has rotated between fielding Fernando Torres as a lone striker and leaving a recognised frontman out of the line-up altogether. If the Chelsea marksman plays the likes of Pepe and the Portuguese rearguard will need to be wary of through-balls and a threat behind them. If David Silva, Cesc Fabregas and Andres Iniesta start as the men furthest forward, like against France, Portugal will be able to push up with a higher line and look to congest the midfield.
Due to this, Del Bosque may well opt to play Torres, as he and Pedro’s introduction against Les Bleus acted as a short in the arm, added pace and created more space for the likes of Xavi and Iniesta as France became stretched. A conventional striker’s inclusion also gives the side more of a clinical edge, with the Spaniards not completely free-scoring to date.
Portugal have put defeat and criticism behind them to make the last four, and bounced back from an opening day loss to Germany to beat Denmark and Netherlands and finish as runners-up in Group B. A 1-0 triumph over Czech Republic in the quarters does not tell the story of a largely one-sided game, as Paulo Bento’s men start to click into gear.
Any team that faces Spain with ambitions of getting a result must keep the ball. This is easier said than done, as the likes of Xavi and Xabi Alonso dictate possession and the pace of the game. As such, Joao Moutinho and Miguel Veloso in the Portuguese engine room must be diligent and accurate with the ball, and combative and tireless without it.
Although Spain have only conceded once so far in the tournament, their defence has not been put under any concerted periods of pressure, something Portugal must change. With Ronaldo and Nani at their disposal, Bento’s charges need to take the game to their illustrious opponents, as the Spanish back four is not watertight by any means. The Portuguese widemen will fancy their chances against Jordi Alba and Alvaro Arbeloa, which will also keep the Spanish full-backs from overlapping in attack.
Portugal have also had two days extra rest after their quarter-final and will have the support of a passionate and football-mad fan base. In a derby fixture anything can happen; this is by no means a foregone conclusion.
Expect this game to be decided by the odd goal, and we may need more than 90 minutes to separate these Iberian rivals in the quest for a place in the final. Anything other than a Spanish victory would be an upset, but Portugal will not lie down and take defeat, in what should be a tight encounter.