Champions pushed to their limit
Ice-cool Cesc seals final place for tired Spanish
SPAIN, again. For the ninth straight knock-out game at a major tournament they kept a clean sheet and, although they failed to score in 120 frustrating minutes, Cesc Fabregas's cool penalty, tucked in off the inside of the post, took them through in the shoot-out.
Cristiano Ronaldo, bafflingly, did not take any of Portugal's four kicks: the idea was to save him till last, but as Joao Moutinho and Bruno Alves failed from the spot, he was not called on.
"We had defined this plan and if it had been 4-4 and he had taken the last penalty we would take in a different way," said the Portugal coach, Paulo Bento. "This has to do with strategy. I don't regret anything. We had no luck in this tournament."
Moutinho's miss cancelled out the save made by Rui Patricio from Xabi Alonso, leaving Alves to carry the blame. He had gone forward to take the third kick only to be called back on the edge of the box when Nani realised he had been listed as the third taker.
Players say the walk from halfway to the penalty spot in a shoot-out is the worst feeling in football; little wonder poor Alves, having had to make it twice, then whacked his kick against the bar.
It had been an ugly, nervous tetchy encounter in Donetsk that brought nine bookings, a bad night for football and a poor night too for Uefa and the tournament organisers.
Well as Portugal closed them down, it is hard to believe that fatigue didn't play its part in Spain's scratchiness: thanks to some unforgivable scheduling they and Italy had two days less to prepare for their semi-finals than Portugal and Germany.
"All the players were at the limit of their physical abilities," said the Spain coach, Vicente del Bosque.
In adversity, though, they found spirit, belief and tremendous determination. Exhausted they may have been, but in extra-time Spain were the better team and but for two fines saves from Patricio, to deny Andres Iniesta and then Jesus Navas, Spain would have won it even before penalties.
It was a measure of their courage that Sergio Ramos, having blazed his penalty high over the bar in the shoot-out that concluded the Champions League semi-final for Real Madrid, not merely stepped forward to take a kick this time, but opted for a "Panenka". It wasn't quite so deft as Andrea Pirlo's against England, but it was just as effective.
With the Seville forward Alvaro Negredo included at the expense of Fabregas, an orthodox No 9 for a false one, Spain never achieved the sort of dominance that had characterised their play earlier in the tournament.
Portugal's pressing unsettled them and they were reduced at times to the sort of speculative forward punt that is antithetical to their basic philosophy.
Eight minutes into the second half Negredo went off for Fabregas and Spain reverted to their controversial line-up lacking a striker.
"We don't only want to defend we want to attack as well," Del Bosque said but it's clear his focus, as it has been all tournament, was on control.
Portugal had expressed dissatisfaction with the appointment of the Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir before the game.
If anything Cakir went rather easy on Portugal: Nani and Ronaldo could both have been booked for dives.
For the most part Bento seemed to have got his game-plan right. Ronaldo dragged one first-half chance just wide from the edge of the box and, without ever quite creating anything clear, was a persistent threat.
He had a great chance to win it in the final minute of normal time but thrashed his shot high over the bar.
That was Portugal's chance. They never had another one.
As against Italy in the quarter-final of Euro 2008 in Vienna, it fell to Fabregas to convert the decisive kick.
That was the victory that turned Spain from also-rans into challengers; four years on, they stand on the brink of an unprecedented third straight major title.