Dream of unique treble still alive

Thu, Jun 28, 2012, 01:00

Spain 0 Portugal 0 (AET – Spain win 4-2 on penalties)A PENALTY shoot-out began Spain’s era and a penalty shoot-out kept it going. The dream of a unique treble is still alive.

A 0-0 draw and penalties with Italy in the quarter-final of this competition four years ago was the turning point, a game that changed Spain’s history and changed their future.

The man who scored the decisive penalty that night: Cesc Fabregas. Last night, he again stood over the spot. Nervously, he talked himself through the moment, convincing himself he could do it again. And then he ran up and scored, the ball flying into the net off the right hand post to send Spain into a third successive final.

A sometimes bad-tempered game of few chances and just one real save had gone into extra time after a goalless 90 minutes.

Shifting tactics and shifting men had done little to shift the scoreboard. Spain had included a striker here, but he had departed early and was not missed. Portugal’s striker Hugo Almeida departed not much later and he was not missed either. In their absence, things hardly improved.

There was a surprise in Vicente del Bosque’s line-up. This time there was no place for the No 9 or the false No 9. Instead, Alvaro Negredo was given his first start of the tournament.

The Sevilla striker brought aggression and attitude to close down the Portugal back four.

Spain’s coaching staff had been particularly keen to prevent Bruno Alves seeking Cristiano Ronaldo from deep. Portugal still sought those diagonals, played early and often, pushing Spain back and quickly occupying the space created with a second wave of pressure from deep. Most sides wait for Spain. Portugal stepped up to confront them. Spain did not like it. The man most able to benefit from that was Ronaldo.

Ronaldo lurked left, Nani right. To start with, at least. But soon Ronaldo was appearing in the middle and dropping deep for the ball. As the first half progressed he caused Spain significant problems.

Both Nani and Ronaldo were brought down as they ran at the Spain defence. Sergio Ramos was booked for upending Ronaldo.

Then Jordi Alba turned into trouble, Joao Moutinho nicked it off him and Ronaldo struck the shot from the edge of the area into the side-netting.

Spain were struggling to get fluidity, pushed back, under pressure. They even started to look a bit ragged at times. The game was fast, the Portuguese faster. And yet from pressure came a chance for Spain when Xabi Alonso’s long, swirling ball up the line found Negredo. He held it up on the edge of the area and pulled it back to Xavi. He found Andres Iniesta, who curled a shot over the bar.

It was Spain’s second chance. The first had been equally unusual, Alvaro Arbeloa racing into the area in the opening ten minutes and side-footing over.

By half-time Spain’s discomfort was clear. Strikingly, when they did try to hold the ball and take the sting from the game, fans whistled them. Raul Meireles and Moutinho had rarely allowed them to settle, while Nani and Ronaldo had forced them back. Mistakes were made.

After 55 minutes Negredo was withdrawn for Fabregas. Less punch, more possession. It was time to claim back the control that Spain had, for once, lacked.

But Portugal got the first chance, when Almeida fired a shot from 25 yards. A moment later, he was taking aim again. Not for the first time a simple long ball bypassed Spain’s midfield. Ronaldo and Almeida combined, the shot travelled harmlessly wide.

The game was almost an hour old and there had not yet been a save from either keeper. When Ronaldo sprinted into the area soon after that he went down under the slightest of pressure from Ramos. Sergio Busquets asked for a yellow card; Busquets got one. A minute later, so did Pepe for a knee-first leap with Alonso. Spain now made a second change – Jesus Navas for David Silva.

A game that had begun with pace and intensity had become disjointed. When Xavi hit a shot into the arms of Rui Patricio just before the 70th minute, it was the first save of the game. And when Almeida hit the ball wide, it left a familiar feeling. He was removed ten minutes from time.

In the 100th minute came the game’s best chance. Arbeloa overlapped, pulled the ball back for Navas and his shot was saved by Rui Patricio. This was Spain’s best period: for all the fatigue, they searched for the goal. Forward they went until the end: they wanted to avoid penalties.

They need not have worried. Fabregas did it again.

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