Spot-on Fabregas sends Spain into Euro 2012 final
Spain’s ‘Tiki Taka’ passing was off-tempo at the Donbass Arena but the holders, unable to hurt Portugal in 120 minutes of stalemate, broke their hearts in a penalty shootout to reach the final of Euro 2012 on Wednesday.
Substitute Cesc Fabregas converted the winning spot-kick, off the inside of the post, to set off wild celebrations from the Spanish players.
“When I stepped up to take the penalty I said to the ball that we had to make history and that it shouldn’t let me down,” said an ecstatic Fabregas after Spain’s 4-2 spot-kick victory following a 0-0 draw after extra time.
For Portugal, who had fought hard all night, questions will be asked why their top scorer Cristiano Ronaldo did not take a kick as they fell to their third semi-final defeat in four appearances at the stage.
Portugal had won their previous two penalty shootouts in major tournament matches.
But coach Paulo Bento was proud of the way his team went toe-to-toe with the world champions, even outdoing them in terms of possession.
“If I had to choose a way of losing I wouldn’t choose this way... Spain is a great team but we can leave with our heads high,” he said.
“We can be sure that we can compete with any team at any tournament.”
Spain have now equalled West Germany’s European record from the early 1970s by reaching three consecutive major tournament finals and victory in Kiev on Sunday would make them the first team to win three in a row.
But the watching Germans and Italians, who meet in Warsaw on Thursday, will have taken heart from a below-par performance from the Spaniards against a pressing Portugal team.
The aura of invincibility that once surrounded them has gradually faded in this tournament and while they still remain the team to beat, their ‘Tiki Taka’ passing did not hurt Portugal.
“We can argue about whether we played well or not but what we cannot dispute is that the defence was excellent,” said Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque.
Indeed the Spanish back-line have now kept a clean sheet in their last nine knockout stage matches in the World Cup and European Championship.
The lack of effectiveness for Spain was further down the field with surprise selection Alvaro Negredo making little impact in attack and the midfield missing their usual sharpness.
After a lively opening half hour, with both teams looking to get forward, the game gradually fizzled out and it was no surprise when the outcome had to be decided by penalties.
Xabi Alonso was first up for Spain and Portugal keeper Rui Patricio got down well to push his effort wide but then his opposite number Iker Casillas did likewise to save from Joao Moutinho.
The ball finally got in the net — after 120 minutes and two penalties — when Andres Iniesta scored with trademark composure but the contest turned when Portugal missed their fourth penalty when Bruno Alves struck the bar.
Alves had walked to take the third kick before being called away by Nani who converted his effort and that change only added to the mystery as to why Ronaldo was not used.
The Real Madrid winger was pencilled in for the fifth kick but after Fabregas’ fortunate conversion off the posts, there was to be no fifth penalty.
“We had this plan and if it would have been 4-4 and he would taken the last penalty we would be talking in a different way,” said Bento, who conceded there had been some confusion between Nani and Alves.
While the shootout provided most of the thrills, the two teams had suggested they might produce an exciting encounter from the outset.
Spain threatened twice in the opening half hour with Alvaro Arbeloa and Iniesta going close while at the other end Ronaldo fired a shot just past the post.
Ronaldo had a rare chance in the final minute of normal time but, after being fed by Raul Meireles after a fast counter-attack, he fired high and wide.
Patricio produced an excellent save to foil a close-range effort from Iniesta late in the first period of extra-time but it was no surprise when the contest had to be determined by penalties.
Portugal have never won a semi-final in a major tournament on foreign soil — their only triumph coming in 2004 when they hosted the tournament and were beaten by Greece in the final.