Spain advanced to the European championship final after defeating Portugal 4-2 on penalty kicks Wednesday in Donetsk, Ukraine.

Midfielder Cesc Fabregas scored the decisive shootout goal, giving Spain an opportunity to win an unprecedented third straight major international title.

Main storyline

Despite all their skill, critics have gone so far as to label the Spaniards "boring" during this Euro tournament.

To national coach Vicente del Bosque, his team could be called the second coming of the 1995 New Jersey Devils for all he cares.

It simply doesn’t matter.

That’s because Spain has reached the European final for the second straight time with the chance to repeat as champions.

Spain was put to the ultimate test by a talented Portuguese team and it took penalty kicks to decide the winner.

Goalkeepers Rui Patricio of Portugal and Spain’s Iker Casillas made their opening saves before Andres Iniesta, Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos gave the Spaniards a 3-2 advantage. Although Pepe and Nani replied for Portugal, Bruno Alves hit the crossbar on his chance, setting up Fabregas’s deciding goal, one that banked in off the inside of the left goalpost.

As Portugal’s fifth shooter, all striker Cristiano Ronaldo could do is watch in heartbreak.

For all the criticism Spain receives for the way it defends, there has been no better side in this tournament. After allowing one goal in the opener, the Spaniards surpassed the 324-minute mark in the first half without allowing another, breaking Italy’s record from the 1980 European championship.

The mark now stands at 419 and counting. The credit should be directed toward Spain’s back end, patrolled by Ramos, Pique, Jordi Alba and Alvaro Arbeloa.

The Portuguese may have been the underdogs heading into the match, but they showed no fear.

Most of Portugal’s success stemmed from defending higher up the pitch, allowing the counterattack to generate quicker and more efficiently. Portugal also did a wonderful job of limiting Spain’s ball movement, something the 2010 World Cup champions are not accustomed to facing.

The first half featured good pace from both sides yet the scoring chances were kept to a minimum. Iniesta came close in the 29th minute, curling a shot that just sailed over the crossbar. Minutes later, Ronaldo pushed his drive wide of the Spanish net.

The second half continued to play out the same way. Still, little was offered in the way of scoring chances. Ronaldo, who remained Portugal’s most dangerous forward, sent a free kick over the Spanish net in the 73rd minute.

Ronaldo could’ve played the hero again in the 90th minute. After Portugal caught Spain on a 3-on-2 break, he wasted his best opportunity inside the left penalty area by sailing another shot over the net. To be fair, Raul Meireles’s off-target pass did break Ronaldo’s momentum, but to not even generate a shot on net was inexcusable.

While Spain dominated both overtime periods, it was Patricio who saved Portugal. He first robbed Iniesta of a goal in the 104th minute with a diving stop to his right, then denied striker Jesus Navas with a right-hand save seven minutes later. 

What this result means

  • The Spaniards will face the winner of the Italy-Germany matchup in the European championship final. A victory on Sunday would make Spain the first nation to repeat at Euro champions.

The winning goal

  • In the world of sports, inches mean everything. Fabregas’s goal just managed to avoid the outstretched arm of Patricio, bank off the post and roll in.

Man of the match

  • A substitute to start the game, Fabregas buried Portugal and increased Spain’s unbeaten streak at Euro to 11 games.

The Spanish perspective

  • "The first one wasn't so lucky, and then we scored the rest of them. Yes, we really were lucky. Everything is about luck sometimes." — Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas

The Portuguese perspective

  •  "I don't regret anything. "We had defined before what would be the best conditions to succeed." — Portugal coach Paulo Bento on his decision to select Cristiano Ronaldo as his fifth shooter
With files from The Associated Press