When it came to Portugal’s Euro 2012 semifinal against Spain, Portugal manager Paulo Bento did almost everything right. His tactics were spot on. His team’s execution, at least for the vast majority of the 120 minutes that were played, was excellent. Alas for Bento, what he’ll be remembered for most is deciding on a penalty kick order that turned Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the world’s best players, into a helpless spectator.
Ronaldo was slated to shoot in the fifth round, but when teammate Bruno Alves missed his fourth-round attempt, Spain’s Cesc Fabregas stole the limelight by slotting home the winner to allow Spain to prevail 4-2 after regulation and extra time had finished scoreless.
Just how haunting a decision this will turn out to be is up for debate. On the one hand, it seems inconceivable that Bento would decide on an order that might result in Ronaldo not taking a shot, especially since shootouts oftentimes never go the full five rounds. Then again, Ronaldo is not exactly a stone-cold penalty taker. After all, during Manchester United’s penalty shootout victory over Chelsea in the 2008 UEFA Champions League final, Ronaldo went third and had his shot saved by Petr Cech. And this past season, Ronaldo missed a penalty kick against Bayern Munich in the Champions League semifinals.
That said, if you’re going to go down, you go down with your best players taking the responsibility of shooting. Instead, Alves, a defender, was the player who took the fateful fourth shot and he only succeeded in smashing his effort off the underside of the crossbar, and opened the door for Fabregas’ heroics. This turn of events led to speculation that in an effort to hog the glory for himself, Ronaldo made the decision to shoot fifth. This theory gained steam when Nani had nudged Alves aside in the third round, hinting that the order was more fluid. But Bento insisted afterward that nothing of the sort took place.
"The fifth [shooter] would have been Ronaldo,” said Bento in the post-match news conference. “We had this order of Moutinho, Pepe, Nani, Alves, and then it would have been Ronaldo."
He later added, “We had definitely this plan, and if it had been 4-4, we would be talking in a different way.”
It’s a decision that Bento may never live down. And given how Portugal played, the totality of what transpired borders on ironic overload. It seems that the biggest trick Spain has played on its opponents in recent years – in addition to suffocating possession – was getting talented sides such as France to abandon the collective belief in its own ability and bunker in defensively. Of course, that only served to play more into Spain’s hands. Such games were essentially lost before a ball was kicked.
Bento was having none of it. From the outset, his side pressed La Roja high up the field, and forced Spain center backs Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique to play more long balls in one half than they had in the entire tournament, which were easily gobbled up by Portugal’s own center back pairing of Alves and Pepe. As consequence, Spain never really settled into a rhythm during regulation, and while La Roja did create its share of chances, Portugal was every bit Spain’s equal. In fact, with a little bit more precision with its passing around the penalty area, A Seleccao may very well have achieved a breakthrough.
That they didn’t falls to a certain extent on Ronaldo’s shoulders. Granted several free kick attempts around Spain’s penalty area, he failed to hit the target on any one of them. Ronaldo also shot high on a 90th-minute counter-attack, although it must be said that Raul Meireles’ feed was behind the Portuguese superstar. Were they simple chances? Hardly, but Ronaldo needed to hit the target with at least one of these attempts, especially against a side as talented as Spain.
The let-off would prove telling. As extra time progressed, Portugal clearly tired, and Spain began to find its game through substitutes Fabregas, Pedro, and Jesus Navas. La Roja was by far the stronger team by the end, and only the heroics of goalkeeper Rui Patricio allowed Portugal to get to penalties, which ultimately ended in tears. But Bento refused to second guess himself.
“I don’t lament anything,” Bento said. “We have to look forward and prepare for the next tournament.”
Spain, meanwhile, can look forward to Sunday’s final in Kiev, although manager Vicente Del Bosque will have plenty to ponder. He was badly out-managed for much of Wednesday’s encounter, and after Alvaro Negredo’s rather anonymous performance as a lone striker, Spain is still a side searching for a replacement to injured star David Villa. But at least Del Bosque and his team have lived to fight on. The same can’t be said for Bento and Portugal.