After managing to avoid a single scoreless draw until Sunday's quarter-final between Italy and England, Euro 2012 has now seen back to back nil-nils head to penalties after a match that saw Portugal go without a shot on target for the entire 120 minutes while Spain managed only one in the 90 minutes of regulation. And in the end, when the penalties finally came, the biggest name on the pitch made a choice that meant he would miss out on even the chance to effect the outcome.
Long before those penalties arrived, the first semi-final of Euro 2012 kicked off with a surprise start for Spain's Alvaro Negredo, with Cesc Fabregas and Fernando Torres—the men who had spearheaded Spain's attack previously at the tournament—relegated to the bench alongside the out of favour Fernando Llorente. It was a move by Vincente del Bosque meant to pin back Portugal's defence and in so doing provide space for Spain's midfielders to work in, but early on at least Portugal's aggressive pressing high up the pitch largely negated the Spanish gameplan.
While previous opponents had given Spain space, attempting to pack bodies into their defensive third and close down the passing lanes, Portugal sent Joao Moutinho and Raul Meireles high up the pitch in an attempt to disrupt the base of Spanish possession. Until Portuguese legs began to tire in the second half, it worked, forcing Spain to raise their tempo in midfield and push the ball quickly into attack. While that led to an increased Spanish goal threat at times, it also opened up space for Portugal to counter into when they were able to get the ball back.
It always seemed, however, to be a tactic that would need to pay off fairly early for Portugal, and with Ronaldo, Nani, and Hugo Almeda unable to penetrate Spain's defence, the game quickly became something of a stalemate despite its slightly stretched nature hinting at the possibility of a breakthrough. And in the end, as the game moved into the second half with neither side having had a clear chance on goal and Meireles and Moutinho beginning to tire, the style of play began to shift towards that favoured by Spain, who in recent years have set out to become a slow, relentless, and inevitable crushing machine.
Since taking over for Luis Aragones, Vincente del Bosque has sought to use the supreme technical ability of players raised on possession football to produce a uniquely Spanish take on catenaccio, an approach to the game only really concerned with the grinding down of opponents. It's an approach that has led to great success, even if for those who would conflate the style of football Barcelona employs with that of the Spanish National Team every match seems to be met with the inevitable suggestion that Spain might need to step up their pace a bit or that perhaps on this particular day they are just a little off. Love it or hate it, though, it is increasingly difficult to argue that this slow drive to grind out low-scoring victory after low-scoring victory does not in fact represent del Bosque's preferred approach.
Portugal at least tried to maintain their high tempo and pressing game as the second half wore on, but soon after the restart their constant pressure began to turn into intermittent pressure and then finally into no pressure. And though when they did get the ball back they may have looked to hold possession more effectively than any of Spain's previous opponents at the Euros, a final breakthrough never seemed to be coming. When del Bosque removed an exhausted Xavi in favour of Pedro and more natural width as regulation wound down, Portugal had little left, and from the moment extra time began there was only ever one side looking to win before penalties arrived.
After going ninety minutes with a single shot on target for either side—and that one a tame effort from distance by Xavi that Rui Patricio caught easily—the best scoring chance of the game fell to Andres Iniesta after 104 minutes when Jordi Alba drove to the byline and cut the ball back. Ten yards out from goal, Iniesta made clean contact, and there likely wasn't a person watching anywhere in the world that didn't expect him to put an end to Portugal's campaign then and there. Patricio got a strong hand to it, though, and pushed the ball around the post.
Then, six minutes later, it was Jesus Navas' turn as an increasingly attacking Spain buzzed around the Portuguese penalty area. His solidly struck low effort was again well stopped by Patricio, and in the end Spain's late push wouldn't be enough to decide who would advance to the final.
When penalties arrived soon after, Xabi stepped up to take Spain's first. After scoring to the left in the quarter-finals against Italy, this time he went low and to the right. Patricio guessed right and stopped it, and for a moment the advantage was with the Portuguese. Instead of leading off with Ronaldo, however, Joao Moutinho went to take their first. And once again the goalkeeper guessed right—the advantage was lost.
The sides then traded goals. First Iniesta put a relatively weak effort past Patricio when the keeper went the wrong way, then Pepe took an extended run-up and hammered it past Casillas. Pique made it two for two for the defenders before Nani just barely kept it under the bar to keep the countries level. Sergio Ramos then stepped up to take Spain's fourth, and taking a page out of Andrea Pirlo's book he chipped the ball straight down the middle—then celebrated in exaggerated fashion, looking to heap even greater pressure on the next Portuguese taker.
That next taker was defender Bruno Alves, who had been third on the list for Portugal until Nani pulled him aside and asked that they switch. His drilled effort smacked straight into the crossbar, and Spain had the edge for the first time. Meanwhile, with Ronaldo fifth on the list there was a chance the Portuguese captain wouldn't even get to take a kick if Cesc Fabregas scored on Spain's fifth chance of the night.
Ronaldo wouldn't get the chance to be the hero. He wouldn't even get the chance to step up to the spot and extend Portugal's chances. And now Spain await the winner of tomorrow's game between Germany and Italy.