It was a slightly strange semi-final in the end, with neither side really able to impose themselves until Spain gradually began to take over in the extra-time period, particularly the latter part. It was as if they had seen that Portugal could beat them on penalties, but not in open play. Portugal were the better side in the first half, but they gradually began to lose self-belief with regard to their attacking abilities, and confined themselves to disrupting Spain as much as possible. The fact that Xavi was sacrificed in the end was proof of that, although perhaps he should have been replaced sooner.
At times it was like watching paint dry, with Spain completely out of shape and off the pace in the first half. There will be much debate in the coming days over Del Bosque’s choice of Alvaro Negredo to start up front. The only apparent reasons might have been the surprise factor, or the physical factor to ruffle Pepe, but neither worked. Pepe is usually more ruffled by awkward little movers like Cesc Fabregas. Negredo is a good club player, but lacks the mobility to fit into the way Spain like to play. It seemed a strange idea, and when Del Bosque finally put on Pedro, Jesus Navas and Fabregas, the oil got through to the motor.
Portugal played well, and Spain’s own rather muted show overall can partly be attributed to this. Germany and Italy will have taken heart from the fact that Portugal’s high line worked very well, with Joao Pereira, Pepe and Bruno Alves at times playing in a defence of three, with most of the midfield pushed up high and snapping at the heels of Spain’s playmakers. Ronaldo flitted and floated, but never quite got free of the shackles of his mates Sergio Ramos (who had a great game) and his room-mate Alvaro Arbeloa. It was Nani who caused Spain the most headaches in the first half, and there was one period where you distinctly felt that it might be a Portuguese night. At the end, the cameras caught Ronaldo mouthing deliberately ‘Injusticia’ (injustice), in Spanish or in Portuguese (I presume it’s the same), but that’s going a bit too far. His side faded towards the end, and ran out of ideas, but they have acquitted themselves surprisingly well in the tournament, after a tempestuous qualifying phase and a poor run of friendlies before the finals. Spain just seem to do well when Fabregas takes the last penalty. It was his effort in 2008 against Italy that started this run, and the one which finally exorcised the ghosts of decades past.
You might argue that this game was further proof of the fact that teams are setting out a more coherent stall with regard to stopping Spain. Portugal had at least learned the lesson from the timidity of the French approach, and at times took the game to their unusually inaccurate opponents. They played Almeida in such a position so as to disrupt Spain’s famous tendency to rely on their get-out clause, where the midfielder, under pressure, turns and plays a simple ball back to the defenders, and the side re-groups. Here, both Gerard Piqué and Sergio Ramos were never allowed to bring out the ball unchallenged, which in turn starved Xabi Alonso of the kind of unhurried possession he thrives on best. Sergio Busquets had to work very hard, and was probably Spain’s most effective player, with an 87% successful pass-rate, but he’s not quite so likely to win a gridlocked game for you. Jordi Alba was too wary of Nani to stray too high (although he tried), and there was nothing on the right side for Spain until Navas finally came on and loosened things up a little. David Silva was also very quiet, and for a while in the second half you began to think that Juan Mata might get his first run-out.
But hey, they’re in the final again, without ever really having hit the heights. Their annihilation of Ireland was more due to the opposition than to Spanish inspiration, but the fact remains that for all the tiki-taka and possession statistics, it is their defence that is now the talking point. They have only conceded one so far, and that was in the first game against Italy. Since then, no-one has beaten Iker Casillas. Aside from the occasional wobble from Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos is having a splendid tournament, and looks more and more like the complete centre-half. There doesn’t seem to be anything that he can’t do - good in the air, strong on the ground (at one point he out- wrestled Ronaldo), technically impeccable, he is the sort of player who permits a manager the luxury of worrying about other things. And his decent imitation of Pirlo’s penalty kick was a little gesture to those who have been taking the Mickey out of him ever since he ballooned his penalty sky-high in the Champions League semi-finals. Whoever plays Spain in the final will have to attack fast, and try to get numbers forward. Portugal made a good show of this in the first half, but perhaps made the mistake of playing more conservatively after the break. It remains significant that all five of their defenders received a yellow card.
It was slightly odd to watch players like Pepe, Fabio Coentrao and Ronaldo up against their mates or their traditional Barcelona enemies, and it lent the game a special spice. The game got a little tetchy at certain points, but at the end it was good to see the ‘buen rollo’ (good vibes) between Pepe and his Madrid colleagues, and the spontaneous togetherness in the Spanish squad, across the Madrid-Barcelona divide. The only thing that was missing was to witness Ronaldo taking a penalty against Iker Casillas, something that inexplicably never took place. By electing Bruno Alves (who never looked convincing as he walked up) to take the fatal fourth, Portugal’s best man for the job remained a spectator. Perhaps Paulo Bento thought that all those penalty sessions on the Madrid training ground would have made them too familiar with each other. It may go down in Portuguese football history as a crass mistake, or it may set a precedent for those who debate whether it is better to pick your best penalty-takers to go first, or last.
I said before the tournament that I thought that Spain wouldn’t win it - that they would run out of gas and ideas in the semi-finals, and I was almost right. I still don’t think that they have enough left in the tank to beat Germany, but they might manage it against Italy. You could argue that they have got through despite not being at their best, which is a good sign. They are also hard to score against - but we still do not really know how they will behave when they are chasing the game, if things really start to unravel. Against Italy, they were only behind for four minutes.
Also, by playing Negredo from the start, Del Bosque seems to have called into question his own conviction regarding the ‘false nine’, although he will argue, perhaps with some justification, that he was only mixing and matching, and playing as many different cards as he saw fit. His critics will see it as evidence of his recent lapses. His devotees will see it as tactical subtlety, reserving his favoured formation for later in the game, as a change-up and a tactical switch as Portugal tired, at a time when Spain often win their games.
If Spain win on Sunday in Kiev, they will become the first ever national side to win three major trophies on the trot. One of their possible rivals, Germany, played in three finals in the 1970s and won two of them (the Euros in 1972 and the 1974 World Cup), failing at the third hurdle in 1976, victims of the famous ‘Panenka’. Germany now, despite their awesome form, are statistically more to Spain’s liking (Spain have won 12 drawn 6 and lost 8), with Italy traditionally seen as a bogey team (8 wins for Spain, 12 draws and 10 defeats), but recent events seem to have overshadowed this data. Something has changed too, in the less spectacular but almost inevitable path of Spain to the final. To paraphrase Gary Lineker, football is a game of 22 players who run around and play the ball ... and Spain always wins. That’s how it seems, for the moment. Sunday night in Kiev may immortalise the paraphrase or revert it to its origins. We shall see.