Spain had to go to penalties to eliminate Portugal and seal their ticket to their third consecutive final in a great international tournament, something only Germany did in the 70s. The last two competitions, the European Cup 2008 and the World Cup 2010, were won by Spain and on Sunday they will have the opportunity to make history becoming the only team to win the treble. Germany, who could be their opponent if they eliminate Italy, actually went out on penalties when they faced the former Czech Republic in the final of Euro 76 which took place in the former Yugoslavia.
As expected, it was not an easy game for Spain. Historically, Portugal have always been difficult opposition, maybe because of the familiarity and rivalry both teams have due to their geographic proximity. Portugal faced the game without any fear, with the advantage of some extra days rest, with the same team and formation they have been playing throughout the whole of the tournament -with the obligatory change of Almeida for Helder Postiga, who was injured- and mainly with the idea of not giving Del Bosque’s team a moment to think. Their plan was clear: press high and with intensity, which forced the Spanish defenders to play with Casillas so he could play long balls to Negredo, who yesterday played as centre forward. This is exactly the opposite of what the current World Champions like to do, namely passing the ball out from the back.
Portugal started the game with a 1-4-3-3 formation pressing high and with intensity and with tight marking on Xavi Hernandez, Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso in the midfield, which made the usual supply of balls to David Silva and Andres Iniesta very difficult. The Portuguese game was built on that defensive approach and then using direct play, looking for Hugo Alemeida, but without much effect, and also quick counterattacks by Cristiano Ronaldo or Nani but with little support.
As for Spain, they started the game again 1-4-3-3 with Alvaro Negredo as striker, a surprise from Vicente Del Bosque as many expected Cesc Fabregas and also Fernando Torres in the 11 starters. The Portuguese pressing made Spain play more long balls than usual from the back with Negredo as the target man for this style of play. However, it wasn’t very effective.
There were few chances to score. Alvaro Arbeloa for Spain and a counterattack by Cristiano Ronaldo were the most significant attempts in a first half in which there were no shots on target. The second half didn’t bring many more opportunities either.
As the second half started it looked as though it was going to be more of the same. Portugal pressed with very high intensity and physical effort and Spain were finding it hard to develop attacks. The question was if Portugal could keep up this intensity but Del Bosque couldn’t wait to see so he started to look for solutions. First he brought on Cesc Fabregas for Negredo trying to get more possession with the extra man in midfield and for him to get between the lines and taking away the target for Bruno Alves and Pepe the Portuguese centre backs who are used to dealing with a fixed striker. Still the Spanish attacks lacked ideas and Jesus Navas came on for David Silva to provide width and get 1v1 wide to unlock the Portuguese defence. Another attempt to unbalance and on 67 minutes Spain got their first shot on target.
As you would expect after such efforts, Portugal started to the tempo. Their plan was still the same, look for Cristiano Ronaldo or a set piece. The introduction of Oliveira for Hugo Almeida looked to get more mobility in attack. They clearly looked for pace up front and the fact that all the Portuguese defenders were on yellow cards was something else to put in the equation and Navas was more effective and was creating problems. Clearly if the Portuguese preesing was less intense and wasn’t as effective, they started to drop off and protect the goal.
Spain’s play was then based on lots of passes around the defenders because without a real striker as a target, they had to arrive from deep and use triangles. Pedro gave another option and in the last few minutes he just lacked that pace to get in on the goalkeeper and finish it off. Ronaldo also failed to use a dangerous counter attack in the 89th minute and extra time arrived.
Not much left in the tank
Portugal were beginning to fade and Spain were dominating the game more and more, the stats showing more possession, more shots, more corners and more passes compared to the previous 90 minutes. But above all, Spain were growing in confidence, felt more secure and pressed high and regained the ball earlier. Portugal committed more fouls, were arriving late foe 50-50 balls and their coach brought on Custodio and Varela for fresh legs. The options for Del Bosque were much more effective despite the scoreline. The width provided by Pedro and Navas along with Fabregas and Iniesta inside, supported by Alonso and Busquets was difficult to stop for a tiring opponent and they started to get chances. A clear chance for Iniesta which produced a reaction save from Rui Patricio and another for Jesus Navas also saved well by the Portuguese goalkeeper.
As it was still 0-0 despite all this, nerves take over in penalties. Alonso and Moutinho missed, one for both sides to start, and a mistake by Bruno Alves, with successful kicks by Iniesta, Piqué, Sergio Ramos and especially Fabregas was in the end enough bringing back memories of a few years ago against Italy and Spain went through to another European final. As we said, a great achievement to be the first squad to get to the final of Euros – World Cup – Euros. Let’s see what happens and enjoy it. Congratulations to Spain, Vicente and his staff, the players and the fans…Spain are in another final.