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Survival of the grittiest

Far from their best,Spain beat an aggressive Portugal 4-2 on penalties to keep date with history

Written by New York Times | Donetsk,ukraine |
June 29, 2012 1:04:22 am

Spain have been criticised as boring at the European Championships,admonished as too defensive. But these are only opinions. Nothing really counts but the objective measure of the final score. While Spain became unnerved by Portugal’s pressure in the semifinals on Wednesday,they never came unraveled or undone.

The match remained scoreless through 90 minutes of regulation and 30 minutes of overtime. Still,Spain remained resilient,impenetrable,their chances placed in doubt but with no sense of concession. They showed a champion team’s resolve — and luck — and prevailed by 4-2 on penalty kicks. The victory was tenuous but also impressive in Spain’s lack of panic and their sustaining durability of purpose.

Spain,the 2008 European champions and 2010 World Cup champions, now have history at stake,along with a trophy. No team has held two European titles and a world title at the same time.

For much of Wednesday’s match,Spain seemed uncomfortable,awkward. Portugal pushed their lines high and pressed with organisation,speed and aggressive intent. Nine yellow cards were issued,five to the Portuguese. Frequently,Spain’s short,rhythmic passing attack was disrupted. They often resorted to long balls. At times,the attack became so uncertain that passes simply went to no one.

When Spain did settle into their patient tiki-taka style,the crowd often jeered at the perceived tedium. La Roja did have the advantage in possession but nowhere near their usual dominance. Perhaps their players were tired,given 48 hours less to rest after the quarterfinals than Portugal. Yet for a ninth consecutive match in a knockout round of a major tournament,Spain did not allow a goal. When penalty kicks played out,the decisive shot came from Cesc Fàbregas.

“We can argue about whether we played well or not,but what we cannot dispute is that the defense was excellent,” Spain Coach Vicente del Bosque said.

Beforehand,much of the discussion centered on how — and whether — Spain could collectively temper the individual brilliance of Cristiano Ronaldo. As it turned out,Ronaldo too often resorted to theatrics,seeking to draw fouls and earn free kicks. His aim was not accurate,either,during the run of play or on set pieces. And he never got a chance to attempt a penalty kick.

In the shootout,Xabi Alonso went first for Spain. He had scored two goals against France in the quarters,but this time he was repelled. Rui Patricio,the Portuguese ’keeper,pushed the shot wide of the left post. João Moutinho chopped his stride as he approached Portugal’s first kick,and did not seem particularly confident. Iker Casillas dived to his right and made the save.

Andrés Iniesta put Spain up,1-0,sidefooting his shot inside the right post. Pepe made a long run up from outside the penalty area and drilled a low shot inside the left post for a 1-1 tie. Gerard Piqué was next for Spain. With assuredness,he scored. Then Portugal seemed confused. Bruno Alves approached the penalty spot,but Nani also walked up and replaced him. Nani stutter-stepped toward the ball and put it just under the crossbar.

A la Pirlo

At 2-2,Sergio Ramos did his Andrea Pirlo impersonation for Spain. Just as Pirlo had done for Italy against England on Sunday,Ramos chipped an audacious floater into the middle of the net as Rui Patricio went sprawling. Ramos had missed a penalty kick for Real Madrid in the Champions League semifinals against Bayern Munich,but this time he was bold and accurate.

According to critics,“I’m not ready for this responsibility to shoot this penalty,but I’m feeling very proud now,” Ramos said. “I wanted another chance.”

Alves stepped up next for Portugal,but he seemed uncertain after the earlier mix-up and drove his kick off the crossbar. Spain remained ahead,3-2. Fàbregas took his turn with a chance to win the match.

He had remained on the bench at the start,as del Bosque surprisingly put the center forward Álvaro Negredo into the lineup. Fàbregas entered early in the second half,and along with the later Spanish substitutes,Pedro Rodríguez and Jesús Navas,provided energy and dynamism,if not a goal.

When penalty kicks arrived,Fàbregas asked del Bosque to shoot fifth and last,“to be the victorious one.” His shot ricocheted off the left post and kicked into the net. Spain had reached the final of a third consecutive major tournament.

Ronaldo would have been next for Portugal,but his attempt became irrelevant. And so the player many had called the best in the tournament had no impact in the final,decisive moment. Paulo Bento,Portugal’s coach,said he had no regret for saving Ronaldo for the fifth kick. “If it would have been 4-4 and he would have made the last penalty,we would be talking in a different way,” Bento said.

But that is what happens when playing against Spain. People talk about how the outcome could have been different,but it seldom is.

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