The muted enthusiasm evident among most Portugal supporters at the start of this tournament has now been replaced by excitement levels not seen since the height of the Luiz Felipe Scolari era at Euro 2004 and the 2006 World Cup.
Ahead of the all Iberian semi-final there is a palpable feeling that this Selecção team could be on the cusp of a historic first trophy.
“Unstoppable!” was the headline emblazoned on the front page of leading sports daily A Bola the day after a high-quality and composed display from Portugal had seen off a dogged Czech Republic side.
But is this most un-Portuguese like wave of optimism justified? After all, to make progress the Selecção must now overcome the reigning World and European Champions, Spain.
The noises coming out of the Portugal camp exude a quiet confidence, and several factors suggest it is not misplaced. Here are five reasons why the Spanish will hold no fear for the Portuguese:
1) Recent history
Yes, it was only a friendly, but the manner of Portugal’s remarkable dismantling of a practically full-strength Spain side in November 2010 will surely give Paulo Bento’s men a psychological boost – and plant a few seeds of doubt in the opposition. The Selecção were irresistible as they plundered a 4-0 win in Lisbon, pressing incessantly, zipping the ball from foot to foot crisply and accurately, and finishing their chances with aplomb. The same formation and most of the same players will be on duty in Donetsk on Wednesday night.
Even in the last competitive match between the two nations played a few months earlier in South Africa, only an offside David Villa goal proved the difference, giving Spain a narrow, albeit deserved victory. Both these encounters will ensure Portugal do not go into the match with an inferiority complex.
2) Squad packed with winners
A host of Portugal’s players who will be on duty on Wednesday are used to that winning feeling. Captain Cristiano Ronaldo, Pepe and Fábio Coentrão played key roles as Real Madrid got the better of a Barcelona team some champion as the greatest club side ever. João Moutinho was at the hub of FC Porto’s midfield as the Dragons clocked up yet another domestic title in Portugal.
Raul Meireles may have been suspended for the Champions League final, but nobody should underestimate the role he played in pushing Chelsea to European glory, especially in that semi-final second leg in the Camp Nou. Nani had a rare lean year at Manchester United, but the winger has won a raft of silverware since swapping Sporting for Old Trafford.
These six players are used to winning, and the contribution each one has made thus far at Euro 2012 suggests they are determined to transpose that club success onto the international arena.
3) Portugal more than Ronaldo
Cristiano Ronaldo has been hogging all the headlines in the wake of two mesmeric performances against the Netherlands and the Czech Republic, but one thing that has set this Portugal side apart from many of its predecessors is the unmistakable unity and spirit of sacrifice among the whole squad.
It is a team in the true sense of the word, and when one part of it is not firing on all cylinders, others have compensated. The captain’s off-day and the response from the rest of the side against Denmark is the perfect example of that. Ronaldo will always be Portugal’s most potent weapon. But an able supporting cast has stepped up big time.
The Portuguese players can go into the game completely uninhibited by the unreasonably demanding expectations often placed upon them by the media and fans alike back home. A Bola editor-in-chief, Vítor Serpa, wrote after the Czech victory: “Now, anything is possible, but the memory of this as an enjoyable tournament is already assured, where the national team went back to the best expression of Portuguese football.”
Enjoying their football is precisely what Portugal’s players seem to be doing at the moment. Spain, on the other hand, will surely consider a semi-final exit a failure. So one side goes into the game with no pressure but full of ambition, with a huge prize awaiting them should they triumph. The other goes into it with more to lose than to gain.
5) Spain on the wane?
Spain are undoubtedly a magnificent team. Player for player, it is difficult to argue against Vicente del Bosque’s men still being the best squad in the world. However, the two times they have come up against quality opposition this tournament, they have struggled to dominate to such an extent as in the recent past. Spain could quite conceivably have lost to both Italy and Croatia.
Is that because they are yet to hit full gear or is it a case of the players not having the same hunger after four years of astonishing success? The answer could come on Wednesday night.
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