KEIR RADNEDGE in DONETSK
— Spain needed penalties against Italy on the path to European glory four years ago so they may consider it a happy omen that they dug out Portugal in a shootout here to reach Sunday’s Final against Germans or Italians.
A game of workrate rather than wonders ended goalless in extra time after two teams of enormous technical talent and professional pride counter-balanced each other to a standstill. Both sides were too preoccupied working away in midfield to indulge in creating the goals the game badly missed.
Spain came to attacking life only in the extra halfhour after coach Vicente Del Bosque ceded once again to the need to resort to wing raiders Jesus Navas and Pedro while Portugal never had enough time to think about finding the hot zones for Cristiano Ronaldo and/or Nani.
Too much work and not enough play makes, if not for a dull game, then for a frustrating one. Most frustrated individual of all will be Ronaldo, for falling just short of a clutch of personal targets, and Bruno Alves, who missed the decisive last Portuguese penalty after a muddle over the shooting order.
That extra fraction of fortune was probably earned for Spain, in the shootout, by the authority of goalkeeper Iker Casillas and the joyous cheek of Sergio Ramos with his Pirlo/Panenko penalty.
“We had loads of luck when it came to penalties,” conceded Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque while opposite number Paulo Bento could surely take away from it all, as consolation, the knowledge that “our country can be proud of us, for all our efforts in this tournament.”
Portugal began with their ‘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 either Fernando Torres or Cesc Fabregas, the so-called ‘false nine.’
Portugal believed they had the weapons to take on the possession-obsessed world and European champions at their own game and, indeed, forced early corners through the endeavour of leftback Fabio Coentrao, one of seven Real Madrid players spread across both teams.
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 twice drove into the crowd.
At the other end Ronaldo stepped 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. All told he showed eight yellow cards, five for Portugal and three for Spain. But Bento volunteered later that he had no complaints about the officials.
Remarkably for them, Spain managed a ‘mere’ 56pc of possession in the first half and it was a back-handed compliment to the effectiveness of the Portuguese strategy that, shortly after restart, Del Bosque replaced hapless Negredo with Fabregas.
Jesus Navas then joined the action in place of David Silva before 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 . . . just as he had struck the decisive penalty, four years ago, in the Euro 2008 quarter-finals against Italy.
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
= = = =