Portugal pushes Spain to the limit | Soccer | CBC Sports

Euro CupPortugal pushes Spain to the limit

Posted: Wednesday, June 27, 2012 | 08:20 PM

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Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, right, and some other teammates react with disbelief after falling to Spain in a shootout at the Euro 2012 semifinal Wednesday in Donetsk, Ukraine. (Armando Franca/Associated Press) Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, right, and some other teammates react with disbelief after falling to Spain in a shootout at the Euro 2012 semifinal Wednesday in Donetsk, Ukraine. (Armando Franca/Associated Press)

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In the end, Cristiano Ronaldo, the man who had been at the forefront of Portugal's attack all tournament, stood alone looking to the heavens asking: why?
In the end, Cristiano Ronaldo, the man who had been at the forefront of Portugal's attack all tournament, stood alone looking to the heavens asking: why? Perhaps, why had the football gods forsaken him once more? Perhaps, why could he not have converted the multiple chances he had earlier in the game?

More than likely though, he was asking why didn't he step forward earlier in the Euro 2012 semifinal shootout that saw Spain win 4-2 and advance to its third straight major tournament final.

It's the type of obvious, albeit iconic, moment that is hard to ignore in the immediate aftermath of a match of this magnitude. And that's why, as the dissection of this match begins, those will be the questions that dominate the conversation.

But the real question that bares asking has nothing to do with Ronaldo, the penalties or the final result; and it is not a why, but a how.

As in how did Portugal, which most would agree was an underdog heading into this match, manage for 45 minutes to make the Euro and World Cup defending champion Spaniards look so frail and exposed? And in fact, if we're being honest, they weren't just exposed but utterly outclassed for that entire first half.

The striking display is not something we're used to seeing but in defeat Portugal has shown some serious chinks in the great Spain's armour. Explaining how that was done begins with the respect Spain is granted.

When approaching Spain, countries are often right to be cautious. They are as equally good at holding possession as they are at pushing the pace. In the past, teams that have played too fast and loose with their attack have been burned by the likes of Andres Iniesta or Sergio Ramos as they recover the ball and speed it back up the pitch on the counter attack. Spain's simple technical ability makes its opponents one wrong turn or one clever flick away from being vulnerable.

And because of this, countries revert to taking an overly safe approach by not jumping in or pushing too far forward. This, in turn, allows Spain to keep possession, under relatively unchallenged circumstances, and they begin to lull their opponents to sleep with their passing. Before they know it, 30-some passes have gone by, the ball is in the back of the net after a creative run and teams are left only holding their unhealthy amount of respect for the La Furia Roja.

Portugal not intimidated

However, Portugal, in the first half, did none of that. In fact, the Iberian rivalry, which had been plugged and promoted as the meeting of two countries, drew their history from along savage bloodlines, saw Os Navegadores playing the role of conquerors.

When they turned the ball over deep in Spain's end, instead of retreating to prepare for the attack, Nani and Ronaldo pressed Spain's backline - something they were clearly not used to. The result was errant passes from Ramos, a hurried Xabi Alonso (who was never really allowed to get started) and had Spain, which is usually comfortable controlling the pace with it tiki-taka style, looking frazzled.

Spain settled in

Perhaps unable to sustain the frantic pace in the second half, the Portuguese pulled back their push and the Spaniards settled into the second half, and all of extra time, playing the game that has won them those titles and now has them on the verge of making history.

No team has ever won three major tournaments consecutively. An achievement of that magnitude would not only put them in a class of their own but would help to properly characterize this era as the generation of possession football.

For 45 minutes, however, they looked anything but a country ready to ascend to the upper echelons of football lore. They looked very human.

In the end, questions about Ronaldo's absence and its implications on Spain's arrival to the Euro 2012 final are irrelevant. Had he gone first, Bruno Alves and Joao Moutinho would still likely have missed for Portugal and Spain would still be off to the final.

A question worth asking might be: although defeated, did Portugal, in one half of play, reveal a weakness to the giant that has become Spanish football?

Whatever the answer, you can be certain that whichever team they face in the final - Italy or Germany - they will be asking themselves that very same question.

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