Spain are heading for their third major tournament final in a row, after knocking Iberian rivals Portugal out of Euro 2012 on penalties.
The Spanish, the reigning European and world champions and favorites for this trophy, narrowly edged a tight and bad-tempered match in Dontesk, Ukraine.
Barcelona’s Cesc Fabregas scored the winning penalty that put his team through to a final against Italy or Germany. With the shootout (in which no flashers were reported) finishing 4-2, Portugal’s captain and star player, Cristiano Ronaldo, never got to take his penalty. While Fabregas whacked his penalty in off the left-hand post, Joao Moutinho and Bruno Alves both missed for Portugal.
The match finished 0-0 after extra-time, with both sides stuggling to create chances, despite the mouth-watering array of attacking talent on the field; indeed, both teams were far from their fluent best as they played out only the second 0-0 draw of the tournament.
The match had been billed as Ronaldo’s chance to finally leave his mark on a major international tournament, and the Portuguese star looked in the mood. The Real Madrid player, facing several of his club-mates, was a constant thorn in Spain’s side, his movement causing problems in front of the Spanish defence.
While Spain’s now-familiar tactic of hogging the ball was aimed at nullifying Ronaldo, Portugal’s hard-working midfield often pressed the usually calm Spanish playmakers into a panic. With Xavi and Iniesta unable to find a rhythm, Spain’s mistakes increased and tempers became frayed.
After an hour, Spanish coach Vicente Del Bosque withdrew centre-forward Alvaro Negredo and brought in Fabregas, and also replaced the quiet David Silva for with Navas, in a bid to give Spain extra width. The ploy appeared to work, as Portugal’s raids began to decrease in number.
The physicality of Portugal’s performance began to take its toll late on, and Spain slowly took over – it was they who had the best chances in extra-time, and Portugal ended the match hanging on. By the end, Spain were pushing desperately for a winner, keen to avoid penalties.
As it happens, they needn’t have feared.