KEIR RADNEDGE in DONETSK
— Spain edged closer to a unique third successive title after beating Portugal 4-2 on penalties after a goalless extra-time draw in their Euro 2012 semi-final in the Donbass Arena. They will face Germany or Italy who meet tonight/Thursday in Warsaw.
The penalties (Spain first): Xabi Alonso saved 0-0, Moutinho saved 0-0; Iniesta 1-0, Pepe 1-1; Pique 2-1, Nani 2-2; Sergio Ramos 3-2, Bruno Alves 3-2; Fabregas 4-2
This Iberian derby with a difference saw Portugal maintain the same team of all the tournament with the exception of Hugo Almeida leading the attack in the place of injured Helder Postiga; Spain also made an attacking change of their own with Sevilla’s Alvaro Negredo called in to lead in line in preference to both Fernando Torres and the so-called ‘false nine,’ Cesc Fabregas,
Portugal believed they had the weapons to take on the possession-obsessed world and European champions at their own game and, indeed, forced the first corner – on the right – in the second minute with a deflected shot from Fabio Coentrao, one of seven Real Madrid players spread across both teams. Club-mate Iker Casillas tipped the kick away for a corner on the left – which he then grabbed securely.
Then it was Spain’s turn to take the stage and remind Portugal how they manage the possession obsession. They also showed more attacking concern than in previous games: Alvaro Arbeloa side-footed over the bar and Andres Iniesta, a minute later, drove into the crowd.
Then it was the turn of Cristiano Ronaldo to step out with a neat run and dangerous cross which Casillas grabbed then an angled free-kick which was blocked by the two-man wall.
One of the pre-match sideshows had been concern in the Portuguese camp at the appointment of Turkey’s Cuneyt Cakir as referee on the grounds that Turkish UEFA veteran Senes Erzik was a declared admirer of Barcelona and that the referees committee – which made the appointments – was headed by Spanish federation president Angel Maria Villar.
Then there was the issue of UEFA president Michel Platini having tipped his hat to a potential Germany v Spain final.
When Nani was tripped out on the right and refere Cuneyt waved play on the entire Portuguese bench rose in anger into the technical area. In due course there were first-half yellow cards – one for Sergio Ramos, one for Fabio Coentrao.
Iniesta had another shot over the bar but the first half ended with Portuguese working their way to a narrow advantage in balance of play and Spain frustrated at not being able to roll the ball around in their usual unchallenged fashion. Had to remember when were they last down to a ‘mere’ 56pc of possession.
The Portuguese also came off at half-time irritated but, in their case, by the officials – an attitude which promised fireworks in the second half.
Neither side made a change at half-time but the first switch was not long in coming. Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque brought on Cesc Fabregas in place of Negredo which was, in its way, a compliment to Portugal by way of an admission that Spain were not commanding possession as they wished.
Jesus Navas then joined the action in place of David Silva as the cards tally rose too with bookings for Sergi Busquets for dissent, for Pepe – his first of the finals! – for blundering into Xabi Alonso and for Joao Pereira for bringing down Fabregas just outside the penalty box.
Ronaldo thundered a couple of free kicks over the bar and was high and wide after a late counter-attack before the match became the 12th Euro semi-final to go into extra time.
Now Spain, despite having had two fewer days to prepare, found new legs. Iniesta had a close-range shot – the best chance of the match – saved brilliantly by Rui Patricio and then Sergio Ramos thundered a left-wing free kick inches wide.
The second half of the extra period started at midnight, local time . . . and Cesc Fabregas struck home the concluding penalty just half an hour later.