Portugal 0 Spain 0: Lessons learned as Del Bosque’s men make the final
What lessons did we learn as Spain beat Portugal 4-2 on penalties to book their place in the European championship final?
The Iberian Clásico
There was a distinct Clásico flavour to this semi-final, with six Real Madrid men involved and four Barcelona players part of Vicente Del Bosque’s starting line-up. However, for this match-up, Álvaro Arbeloa, Iker Casillas, Xabi Alonso and Sergio Ramos were linking up with their Catalan rivals to secure Spain’s place in the Euro 2012 final. Heading the Madrid contingent in Paulo Bento’s first-team was Cristiano Ronaldo, and the encounter embraced a similar plot to the many derbies between the La Liga rivals over the past four seasons. Spain’s possession-based and probing approach became the trademark of Pep Guardiola’s decorated Barcelona side, with the heart of that team, Xavi and Andres Iniesta, just as integral to the national team. Bento’s side looked to put incessant pressure on Spain when without the ball, and then break quickly, with Nani and Ronaldo eager to test the opposition full-backs. In the opening 45 minutes, the Spanish were forced to make 14 clearances, highlighting the success of Bento’s tactic. Towards the end of 90 minutes, ill-discipline began to creep into match, with Portugal picking up five yellow cards, reminiscent of a bad tempered meeting between Barça and Madrid.
Negredo toils as spearhead of Spain’s attack
Del Bosque sprung a selection surprise by starting Álvaro Negredo for the last-four meeting with Portugal, opting to omit Chelsea’s Fernando Torres and Barcelona midfielder Cesc Fábregas, who were previously preferred to spearhead Spain’s attack. Torres excelled in the 4-0 victory over the Republic of Ireland, running in behind the defence and providing thrust to their attack, while the former Arsenal captain linked up well with his midfield colleagues. Negredo, who scored 14 goals in 31 appearances for Sevilla in La Liga last season, was isolated, with Pepe and Bruno Alves ensuring the striker’s supply was limited. The 26-year-old’s movement was noticeably lacking, too. Del Bosque charitably handed the striker another seven minutes after half-time to make his mark but even when Álvaro Arbeloa delivered a dangerous cross, Negredo was absent in the six-yard area. It came as no surprise to see the former Madrid manager revert to his tried and tested six-man midfield, with no recognised forward up front. Fábregas’ introduction certainly improved the crispness of Spain’s passing, with the midfielder weaving along the Portugal back four in search of space to finally test Portugal goalkeeper Rui Patricio.
Nani performs alongside Ronaldo
With Ronaldo shackled by Spain’s defence in the first half, Nani burst into life and posed a real threat to Spanish left-back Jordi Alba. In the 19th minute, the Manchester United winger drifted past Alba and appeared set to beat Ramos for pace, rapidly accelerating towards Casillas’ goal – but the Madrid defender cynically blocked Nani’s run, and the Portuguese midfielder was unfortunate not to receive a free-kick for his endeavour. Another piece of wizardry saw Nani evade a Spanish challenge and surge towards Spain’s area only to be halted again – this time by the referee, who pulled play back to give the Red Devils star a set-piece for an innocuous tackle. With Portugal’s frustration towards the officials growing, Nani bamboozled Alba for the third time in quick succession, prompting a body check, with referee Cüneyt Çakir missing the infringement. Not helped by Hugo Almeida’s wastefulness in promising positions, Nani started to fade in the second half but still posed a threat on the break, particularly with Alba on a caution. It highlighted Nani’s potential to finally fulfil his great promise and become a world class forward and emulate his skipper Ronaldo.
Alves and Pepe stand firm
Bento’s offensive options have been lauded over the past two weeks, with Nani and Ronaldo boasting pace and trickery. João Moutinho and Raul Meireles have been the architects in midfield, possessing the ability to turn defence into attack in seconds. But it was the centre-half partnership of Bruno Alves and Pepe that particularly impressed. Pepe has established a reputation as a defender with a short fuse since moving to Madrid, but the 29-year-old kept his composure despite Spain’s persistent loitering on the edge of Patricio’s area, eager to draw a cheap foul. Equally commanding was Porto’s Alves, who emphatically won the aerial duel with Negredo and was unafraid to make uncompromising challenges on Spain’s dexterous midfielders. The duo were aided by Portugal’s team ethic, defending began from the front, with Almelda, Ronaldo and Nani closing down and allowing Spain’s defenders minimal time to thread a pass forward. When Portugal’s defence was finally breached deep into the first half of extra-time, Patricio was on hand to first deny Iniesta from close-range, and then parry Jesus Nava’s effort with nine minutes left until penalties.
Plucky Portugal not so lucky
Portugal’s brave tactics ultimately failed to pay dividends as Spain reached successive European championship finals with a 4-2 victory in the penalty shootout. Heading into the decisive session of spot-kicks, Portugal boasted the better record in major tournaments, beating England in 2004 and 2006 at the quarter-final stage. Meanwhile, Spain had a 50 per cent success-rate, winning three and losing three. Bento’s side had the advantage early on courtesy of Patricio’s fantastic save to deny Alonso, but Casillas repeated his heroics against Italy at Euro 2008 to restore parity by denying Moutinho. A flurry of emphatic strikes followed with Iniesta, Pepe, Gerard Pique, Nani and Ramos all converting before Alves stepped up. The defender smashed his effort against the crossbar, leaving Fàbregas to tuck his finish past Patricio – aided by the goalkeeper’s right post – and book Spain’s place in Sunday’s showpiece.