World and European Champions Spain remain on course for a record third successive major title after edging Iberian rivals Portugal in a tight semi-final. The teams could not be separated after 120 minutes of play and so the second Euro clash in succession had to be decided by a penalty shootout.
Spain made the worst possible start when Xabi Alonso, the hero of his team’s quarter final victory over France, saw his penalty saved by Rui Patricio. However, the former Liverpool midfielder was let off the hook when Joao Moutinho‘s opening effort for Portugal was well stopped by Iker Casillas.
The next five kicks all went the way of the shooter leaving Spain 3-2 up when Bruno Alves took his turn for the Portuguese. The central defender looked a touch nervous. He had walked forward to take his country’s previous kick only to be replaced at the last minute by Nani.
Alves went for power but his shot was a fraction too high and rebounded off the crossbar.
That meant that Cesc Fabregas could win the tie for Spain with the next kick. The Barcelona star scuffed his shot slightly and hit the inside of Patricio’s right-hand upright. On another day the ball might have rebounded to safety, but on this occasion it flew over the line and nestled in the side netting at the opposite side of the goal. Spain was through to the final.
No goals, but a game for the connoisseur to savor
Prior to kick-off Portuguese coach Paulo Bento was forced to change his starting line-up for the first time in the tournament owing to Helder Postiga’s hamstring injury. Besiktas striker Hugo Almeida was chosen to deputize, giving Portugal a genuine target man up front. Vicente Del Bosque also made one change, opting to give Alvaro Negredo of Seville his first start of the competition. That meant both Cesc Fabregas and Fernando Torres would start on the bench.
It immediately became evident that Portugal was not about to sit back and allow Spain to dominate proceedings with their immaculate short passing game. Bento’s men quickly announced their intentions by winning two early corners. They refused to allow the Spanish to settle with constant harrying and denial of space, besides enjoying plenty of possession themselves. Nonetheless, Spain did create an opening through playmaker Andres Iniesta as early as the ninth minute, but the chance was squandered by Alvaro Arbeloa who fired over the top. In truth it was a typical full-back’s finish.
Much was expected of Portuguese skipper and player of the tournament Cristiano Ronaldo, and he came close just past the half hour. The Real Madrid and former Manchester United superstar manufactured an opening out of nothing only to fire his shot fractionally wide of the post. Ronaldo wanted a corner, claiming that Casillas had gotten his fingertips to the ball, but Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir disagreed.
Ronaldo had a couple of free kick attempts from a few meters outside the area in the second half, and he has scored from that sort of distance on several occasions during the regular season. Yet tonight he was unable to find the target, with both efforts going over the bar. Indeed, Portugal’s delivery from corners and free-kicks was waning throughout the game and a number of good positions were wasted.
Ronaldo had a golden chance to win it for Portugal right at the end of normal time.
Nani was in unfamiliar territory on the edge of his own penalty area and his sublime skills and vision resulted in a clearance out of defense turning into an incisive attack.
Chelsea’s Raul Meireles played in Ronaldo who really should have ended the contest but again shot over the crossbar.Spain was the more lively during the extra time period and Portuguese keeper Rui Patricio was called upon to make his first significant saves of the game. His one-handed stop from Iniesta on 14 minutes was a beauty and kept his team alive.
So it all came down to the lottery of the penalty shootout and it was Spain, perhaps with that extra bit of big game experience that prevailed.
It was hard on Portugal who certainly held their own throughout the contest and was never over-awed by their illustrious opponents. It might have seemed strange to those watching that Renaldo did not take a penalty himself. Perhaps his record at beating club teammate Casillas in practice has not been the best. But we now look forward to what promises to be another titanic battle in the second semi-final between Germany and Italy -- the two traditional powerhouses of the European game.
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