DONETSK, Ukraine -- At the 2010 World Cup, Spain matched up with Portugal in the Round of 16. The 1-0 scoreline did not tell the story of the game. Portugal’s lackluster performance saw it outclassed and humiliated, and Cristiano Ronaldo’s only contribution of note was to spit at a cameraman as he left the field.
Two years and two days later, in Donetsk, Portugal was eliminated by its neighbor again. Only this time, its organized and defiant performance suggested how much progress it has made in that time. Over the course of 120 minutes, the Portuguese refused to back down, created chances and for long periods of the first half had a nervy Spain confused and unable to impose its natural passing rhythm.
After the physicality of this extended game, the Spaniards will limp into Sunday’s final knowing they maintained their remarkable record of not conceding a single goal in knockout stages of a major international tournament since the 2006 quarterfinal. But they will also be aware that had Ronaldo converted one of two gilt-edged chances handed to him in either half, they would not be headed to Kiev to face the winner of Germany versus Italy.
Portugal coach Paolo Bento, dignified yet intense in meeting with the press, made this point. The Portuguese manager was adamant his team should have won in regulation. “Today we were better in the first 90 minutes,” he said. “We just didn’t take our chances. Spain became stronger in extra time. But we should have decided it in the 90 minutes.”
Bento was magnanimous in defeat. “Spain is a great team and we can leave the pitch with our heads held high.” The lessons of Euro 2102 were clear to him. Portugal has transformed itself in two years from a quarrelling band of talented individuals to a true collective that will be a real threat at the next World Cup. “Our players showed here we can compete with any team in any tournament at any level.”
When discussing his team’s game plan, Bento was at his most articulate and animated. “We were aggressive and cohesive,” he said. “We tried to control the game as much as possible and we created lot of problems for Spain.”
In Bento’s mind, the game turned at the hour mark when Cesc Fabregas and Jesus Navas came on the field. “The Spanish substitutes changed the game,” Bento said. “The two players they bought on were very direct, and although we contained them, we lost the chance to counterattacks, which in turn allowed them to hold on to possession.”
The Portuguese coach became spiky when pressed for details of his team’s idiosyncratic approach to the penalty-kick process. First, Nani appeared to ice teammate Bruno Alves by calling him off his shot. Then Alves returned for a fourth kick but ballooned his adrenalin-filled shot against the crossbar. The coach would only confirm his order: “Moutinho. Pepe. Nani. Alves. Ronaldo. That is what we decided. Alves was a little confused, that’s all, but it was not decisive,” Bento said.
Bento also refused to be drawn into the debate surrounding Ronaldo’s nonappearance at the penalty spot. Was his star and captain saving himself for something special that never came? Had he choked, or was this a plan that backfired? “If it had been 4-4 and Ronaldo struck the winning penalty, we would be talking differently about this whole thing,” Bento said. “We did what we thought would give us the best chance to succeed and it did not work. I don’t regret anything.”
Noble in defeat, Bento refused to make any excuses and congratulated the victors. "Well done, Spain,” he said. “We fell, but we fell like a great team should, with honor and with pride.” His one regret was Portugal’s tournament-wide lack of good fortune. “We did not have too much luck in this tournament,” Bento said. “Five times we hit the post, and then again in the penalty kicks. If you don’t have luck in this game, you lose.”
Luck was also a factor in the mind of his opposite number, Spain’s Vincente Del Bosque. The Spanish coach agreed Spain had a challenging night. “Portugal were superior defensively,” he said. “We did not have that many opportunities in regulation. We had more chances in extra time. Once it went to penalties, we were lucky, so I want to congratulate Portugal.”
Del Bosque praised the mental fortitude of Fabregas, who struck the winning penalty tonight, as he had against Italy in the quarterfinal of Euro 2008. “Cesc asked me if he could take the fifth penalty so he could strike the victorious one,” Del Bosque revealed. “I never argue with that.”
Del Bosque will have much to occupy his mind before Sunday’s final. His team looked tired tonight, and Del Bosque admitted, “I have to say, all the players are at the limits of their physical abilities right now.” But above all, the lack of cutting edge will continue to nag. Alvaro Negrego failed to impress after being given a surprise start over Fernando Torres, and Del Bosque admitted concern. “Both teams created few chances to score,” he said, “but after Fabregas, Navas and Pedro came on, we created more problems.”
When Fabregas converted his penalty kick to end the game, the stadium erupted in a wall of noise and the Spanish squad crumpled into a celebratory pile. Del Bosque did not even afford himself the merest of smiles, strolling respectfully to shake Bento’s hand before disappearing back into the locker room, his mind already on the final. There will be no celebration until the final whistle.
“We don’t care who our opponent is,” he deadpanned. “All I know is it will be a great match.”
Roger Bennett is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @rogbennett.