BEIRUT: Spain rode their luck as they earned the chance to defend their European title after beating Portugal on penalties (0-0 aet) Wednesday.
Spain will play the winner of Italy vs. Germany Sunday in the final of Euro 2012 as they hope to clinch an unprecedented Euro-World Cup-Euro trio of trophies.
Cesc Fabregas was the match winner, scoring off the post with the penalty after Bruno Alves missed Portugal’s fourth penalty. Both teams missed their first penalties, Xabi Alonso and Joao Moutinho, while Sergio Ramos evoked memories of Andrea Pirlo with a beautifully chipped Panenka penalty.
The two sides couldn’t be separated after 12 minutes forcing penalties. In open play, Portugal had done as good a job of suppressing Spain as any team has since they became European champions in 2008, although both sides struggled for legitimate chances.
Before the game, Portugal coach Paulo Bento had promised that Portugal would attack the Spanish, not park the proverbial bus and try and beat Spain at their own game.
These kind of bold proclamations have been made before with Barcelona and with Spain, usually resulting in either total annihilation or in a broken promise and defensive tactics.
This time, however, Bento was on the money. In fact for nearly 10 minutes in the middle of the half, Spain looked shakier than they have in the last five years. Portugal harried them out of possession, especially Spain’s defenders, kept hold of possession well and managed to attack Spain without losing defensive discipline.
Portugal’s front four of Cristiano Ronaldo, Nani, Hugo Almeida and Joao Moutinho did a diligent job of preventing Spain’s defenders an easy pass to their two sitting midfielders, Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets, resulting in the uncharacteristic sight of Spain having to play the long ball.
The Spanish were even held to a relatively measly 57 percent possession in the first half. And that is the danger of playing the World and European Champions: Even a superlative performance might not be enough.
For all of Portugal’s intent in the first half, Spain had the best chances. Andres Iniesta was his usual sublime self, setting up a great chance for Alvaro Arbeloa as well as putting a curled effort onto the roof of the net with two defenders advancing. For all of Portugal’s good work, all they had to show for it was a long range shot by Ronaldo that could be attempted 100 more times without the result differing.
Portugal were arguably denied a penalty as well when Sergio Ramos appeared to have handled the ball while attempting a clearing diving header.
Surprise inclusion Alvaro Negredo was taken off for Cesc Fabregas early in the second half and the Spaniards’ fluidity immediately improved.
It didn’t keep Portugal at bay, however, with Almeida going close twice in the first 10 minutes of the half.
The Portuguese still managed to send shivers through the Spain defense with the speed and tricky of Nani and Ronaldo on both flanks. Not only that, but Spain were almost completely incapable of getting in the penalty area. Xavi Hernandez had a nice effort from 25 yards easily saved and that was the extent of their attacking threat.
With Portugal having 44 percent of the possession in the second half, Spain couldn’t even rely on having superior fitness that they normally enjoy late in games when the opposition are tired after chasing the ball all game.
Ronaldo’s frequent free kicks around the area kept the drama high in a game that had 0-0 written all over it. The Real Madrid superstar could have clinched the game before extra time, but blew his effort on the break.
Iniesta nearly gave Spain the lead after latching onto Jordi Alba’s cross before Rui Patricio palmed the ball away. In the end the cruelty of penalties decided a profoundly even semifinal.