Spain through to the final after Iberian penalty drama
Spain booked their place in the Euro 2012 final on Wednesday night after overcoming a spirited Portugal side on penalties. The Iberian rivals could not be separated after 120 minutes of tightly-contested action, with Cesc Fabregas the decisive penalty-scoring hero.
Vicente del Bosque included Sevilla frontman Alvaro Negredo in attack in a shock move, with Fabregas the man sacrificed from the team that had beaten France. Paulo Bento opted to field Hugo Almeida in the absence of injured forward Helder Postiga, with the side unchanged otherwise.
The first-half was very even, with both teams playing to win the match and taking the game to their opponents. The best opportunity of the first 45 fell to full-back Alvaro Arbeloa, who fired over after good work from Andres Iniesta. At the other end Cristiano Ronaldo hit the side-netting after excellent harrying and closing down by the Portuguese midfield.
Spain changed things early in the second-half, with the ineffectual Negredo replaced by Fabregas. The game turned into a war of attrition in the middle third of the pitch, with Joao Moutinho and Miguel Veloso getting through a power of work to close down their talented midfield opponents. As the game headed towards extra-time, Portugal were handed a glorious opportunity to snatch victory, with Ronaldo firing wide at the death. Raul Meireles had led a Portuguese counter-attack, but his pass to the Real Madrid star was slightly behind the forward, who missed the target on his weaker left foot.
The additional 30 minutes was dominated by the world champions, who had brought Jesus Navas and Pedro on to add fresh legs and pace to their attack. The Barcelona substitute combined well with Jordi Alba down the left to threaten, whilst Iniesta had the best chance of the period, calling Rui Patricio into a smart close-range save. In the end a draw was a fair result, with the sides to be separated from 12 yards.
The shootout started in dramatic fashion, as both Xabi Alonso and Moutinho saw their first kicks saved. After successful attempts from Iniesta, Ramos, Pique, Nani and Pepe, Bruno Alves saw his effort cannon off the crossbar to allow Fabregas to win the clash for La Roja.
It was certainly an entertaining first semi-final, with Spain being tested for the first time in their campaign. However, Del Bosque’s team selection must be questioned once more, as Negredo’s inclusion looked like a major faux-pas by the trainer. The lone forward looked rusty, out of his depth and was wasteful in possession, whilst not offering a threat in behind the Portuguese backline.
His lack of impact, and the compressed nature of the game once Fabregas was introduced meant that Spain’s talented midfielders were crowded out of the game in a battle in the centre of the park. Had Fernando Torres played instead of Negredo the likes of Pepe and Alves would have been wary of the threat in behind them, been forced to retreat, consequently creating additional space and stretching the game to the Spaniards’ creative players’ benefit.
Spain are likely to play Germany in the final, who are loaded with youthful exuberance and attacking prowess. The holders’ players were looking slightly jaded towards the end of this encounter due to Portugal’s mammoth effort, whilst Bento’s men certainly showed that the champions are by no means unplayable.
Whether it is Germany or Italy in the next round, Del Bosque must get his team selection right, with seemingly one of his star midfielders needing to be sacrificed to allow a goalscoring threat and a different style of play to test their opponents.