Ronaldo goes missing as Spain go through
JUNE 28 — It was billed as Spain versus Cristiano Ronaldo, but Portugal are a far better team than having to rely solely upon their most famous player, and they collectively gave their Iberian neighbours a real run for their money in last night’s European Championships semi-final.
In the end, the fact that Ronaldo didn’t even have the chance to take a penalty in the decisive shootout will be one of the big talking points of this semi-final. Instead, Cesc Fabregas sent his team the final with the last kick in a 4-2 shootout victory, with Ronaldo left stranded as the unused Portuguese penalty taker.
Fabregas was given the chance to net the winner when Bruno Alves hit the crossbar with Portugal’s penultimate kick. That came after Xabi Alonso and Joao Moutinho had their teams’ opening efforts saved, along with conversions from Andres Iniesta, Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos for Spain, and Pepe and Nani for Portugal.
It’s easy to understand why Portugal were keeping Ronaldo back until the fifth and last penalty, but the fact that they desperately needed the fourth attempt to be scored must have meant they at least considered pushing him up the order. But it’s easy to second-guess that kind of decision, and I don’t think it would be fair to criticise the call to hold him back.
Harsh as it may have been on Portugal, the shootout at least provided some drama after a goalless game that contained little, mainly thanks to Portugal’s successful strategy of pressing high up the pitch to disrupt Spain’s usual rhythm. But Spain created the majority of the game’s few chances, so they just about deserved to go through.
Amidst the galaxy of stars within the two squads, Spain right-back Alvaro Arbeloa was one player who rarely featured in the pre-match discussions — and when he did, it was solely on the subject of how he would cope with the threat of Ronaldo.
Nobody anticipated the game’s first and best chance falling Arbeloa’s way, but that’s exactly what happened after eight minutes when a loose ball fell into his path on the edge of the box. Arbeloa, however, is not a natural goalscorer, and snatched at a left-footed shot to send it over the bar. Little did we know at the time, but that proved to be the best chance of the entire 90 minutes.
Spain were forced into playing an unusually high proportion of long balls, and from one of those Alvaro Negredo did well to get in front of his marker and hold up play until support arrived. The ball was eventually worked across to Iniesta in the inside-left position, and his shot was curled dangerously over the crossbar.
But that was an isolated opportunity for the reigning champions, and Portugal were playing well. They were defending high up the pitch, working hard to close down their opponents and prevent Spain from embarking upon their usual tiki-taka fast passing routine. Xavi, Iniesta and David Silva just weren’t allowed to settle into the rhythm they usually enjoy.
Far from being a one-man team, Portugal were showing their strength all over the pitch, and Spain looked far from convincing as they succumbed to their lack of time on the ball by carelessly conceding possession on a regular basis.
As the first half meandered to an uneventful close, Portugal will have certainly been the happier of the two teams. It was far from pretty, but their high-pressure approach was very effective: Spain have rarely commanded so little possession.
Spain started the second half in a similarly sloppy fashion, and before long their coach Vicente Del Bosque had seen enough: with just 53 minutes on the clock he replaced front man Negredo with Fabregas, resorting to the Barcelona-style “false nine” 4-6-0 formation that Spain had already employed earlier in the competition.
Five minutes later, another change followed as the speedy Jesus Navas came on for David Silva, this time with the intention of stretching the width of the field and giving Spain some genuine penetration down the right wing.
But it’s very difficult to reverse the pattern of a game once it has been set, and Spain were still unable to find any fluidity. They were, at least, still very solid in defence — an element of their game that is often overlooked — and Portugal offered no goal threat as Ronaldo found himself well shackled by his Real Madrid clubmate Arbeloa.
Extra time started to look inevitable, and an illustration of the flow of the game came when Xavi was substituted for his Barcelona teammate Pedro. Xavi is usually the man who calls the tune, the bandleader who sets the tempo for the rest of his team to follow, the last player you would want to remove from the pitch — but on this occasion he was sufficiently ineffective to warrant being substituted.
Ronaldo spurned a rare late chance on the counter-attack, slicing a 20-yard effort high over the crossbar of the underemployed Iker Casillas. And that was it: extra time beckoned.
Spain were the only team that threatened in the additional period. First a thrusting run by the impressive Jordi Alba created a good opportunity for Iniesta, only for the midfielder to uncharacteristically half-hit his shot and allow Rui Patricio to save to his left. Then the unlikely figure of Sergio Ramos sent a blistering long-range free-kick narrowly over the bar, and Spain were looking dangerous for the first time.
The pressure continued in the second half of extra time and Patricio had to make a smart low save from Navas’ angled drive, before Portugal left-back Fabio Coentrao had to track back well to prevent Pedro from having a clear sight of goal after a swift break. Extra time was a Spanish onslaught as Portugal tired and Pedro and Navas ran amok down the wings, but Portugal just about held on for their ill-fated penalty shoot-out.
Tonight we’ll find out who will join Spain in the final, and I can’t see any other outcome than a Germany victory over Italy. Joachim Loew’s team have been mightily impressive throughout the tournament and are benefiting from two days’ extra rest. Italy are an obdurate bunch and will relish a backs-against-the-wall defensive encounter, but Germany should possess too much quality and energy to be denied.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.