27 June 2012

Spain 0-0 Portugal aet

Spain win 4-2 on penalties

Spain: Alonso, Iniesta, Piqué, Ramos, Fàbregas
Portugal: Moutinho, Pepe, Nani, Bruno Alves

The king still lives. But barely.

"You come at the king, you best not miss." And Portugal had zero shots on target. Zero. 11 efforts: eight off-target, three blocked, all but three from outside the penalty box. Which admittedly, wasn't much better than Spain's two on target from eight until extra time – where they were markedly improved – but Spain's been here, done this before, and have the t-shirts and trophies to prove it.

Sure, after 90 minutes, Spain were as unimpressive as at any time during their run through the last three tournaments. At full time, Spain had completed just 469 of 553 passes, both lows for this tournament. As was the resulting 85% pass accuracy, after 89% against Italy, 92% against Ireland, 89% against Croatia, and 89% against France.

Credit for much of that goes to Portugal, although some was self-inflicted (*cough Negredo cough*) and some was the valid "two days less rest" excuse. But Portugal were outstandingly diligent in midfield; Veloso, Moutinho, and Meireles took turns pressing Spain's engine room, ensuring neither Xavi nor Xabi (nor Iniesta when he dropped deeper) had time to create anything. Portugal's back four has been one of the tournament's best, and Pepe and Bruno Alves remained excellent, while Pereira limited Iniesta and Alba more than any other right back has been able to so far.

Still, Del Bosque's gamble, starting Negredo instead of Torres, Fàbregas, or – god forbid – Llorente, was an utter failure.

He had absolutely zero impact in 54 minutes, unceremoniously hauled off in favor of Fabregas soon after the interval. Regardless of the usual superiority in possession, which was slightly less superior than usual, Spain were limited to one clear cut chance in the first half. The first was from the usual player left free – Arbeloa, typically Spain's least potent threat and unsurprisingly rarely tracked by Ronaldo – but he ballooned his ninth-minute shot from Negredo's cutback. Otherwise, Iniesta had a couple of off-target efforts after linking up with Xavi and Alba, while Portugal fed off whatever scraps Ronaldo self-created, with Almeida much less menacing than against the Czechs.

The second half remained in a similar, yawn-inducing vein, even after Fàbregas replaced Negredo, shortly followed by Navas in place of Silva. Once again, Del Bosque sent on a tricky, cross-happy winger after taking off his "orthodox" striker. It was even less effective than against Croatia, where Navas and Fàbregas combined for the winner at the death. Still, as always always always seems to happen, Spain clawed further and further up the pitch as the opposition tired. Pedro replacing Xavi in the closing seconds, with Iniesta shifting to the play-making central role, exacerbated the gap.

As FourFourTwo amusingly pointed out, Portugal were even worse in extra time than England were against Italy. England! Interplay between Alba and Pedro led to Spain's best chance of the match late in the first half of extra time, with the left-back – Spain's star player today, and arguably throughout the tournament – breaking past three to the byline and cutting back for Iniesta, but Rui Patricio smartly saved the midfielder's placed shot.

With Spain unable to break through a determined Portugal defense despite the vast improvement in the final thirty minutes, we got penalties for the second match running. And there were more than a few similarities to the England-Italy spot-kicks. Level after Alonso and Moutinho missed while Iniesta, Pepe, Piqué, and Nani scored, up stepped Sergio Ramos, with a Xerox copy of Pirlo's Panenka straight down the middle. Once again, psychology works. Once again, the next penalty taker – Bruno Alves – cannoned his effort off the crossbar. Fàbregas scored the fifth, just like he did to beat Italy at Euro 2008, with cameras immediately focusing on Ronaldo, left standing, lip quivering, unable to even have a chance at being the hero. The schadenfreude is overwhelming. Yes, I am a petty, petty man.

By anyone else's standards, Spain are worthy finalists, the superior side in each of their five matches. But by their own, and those we've set for them, it's another ho-hum ground-out victory, eking through thanks to a penalty lottery.

But Portugal winning would have been similar to England beating Italy. Italy were more dominant, in shots and attacking flair if not possession, while England are assuredly not at Portugal's level. Portugal – and yes, Ronaldo – had an outstanding tournament, especially the midfield and back four, and were deserved semi-finalists. But Spain were the better side, are the better side, and will now face Germany or Italy for the chance to do what no other country has ever done.

Are you not entertained?

1 comment :

Jake said...

This is a fantsstic blog and a fantastic assesment of the game I just watched - just wanted to say.