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Euro 2012: Kicking Off the Semi-finals with an Iberian Derby

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After a few days off from Euro 2012 action gave just enough time for widespread transfer market panic to set in, it's back to a bit of internationals distraction and hoping the semi-finals can live up to the standard set by this year's group stages rather than mostly falling flat as was the case with the quarter finals.

Spain v. Portugal
Wednesday 7:45PM BST/2:45PM EST

A slow start to the tournament had people talking about it being another underwhelming performance at the international level for Christiano Ronaldo. Three goals against Netherlands and the Czech Republic that helped secure advancement for Portugal have, however, quickly flipped the narrative. Instead of being the goat, he now finds himself a hero—albeit still a mildly distasteful one who mouths "Messi" into the watching cameras, reminding everybody that for Ronaldo the only thing that really matters at the end of the day is Ronaldo.

As for Spain, the road to success has come through teamwork as has so often been the case in recent years. Where Portugal has a star and leading scorer—and then everybody else—in Cesc Fabregas, Fernando Torres, and Xabi Alonso, Spain's scoring leaders with two each are a pair men who have only played half the minutes at this year's tournament and a midfielder who isn't expected to regularly show up on the score sheet. Meanwhile, though no Portuguese player has yet been credited with an assist, for Spain David Silva leads the way with three to his name.

Much of the talk as the match approaches, then, will inevitably focus on the team versus the individual, with Spain's at times numbingly defensive take on possession football on one side and Ronaldo on the other. When it comes to Spain, that's probably a fair and sensible approach to take, as an attempt by Vincente del Bosque's side to use patience and midfield numbers to wear down Portugal seems inevitable. For Portugal, though, with Hugo Almeda expected to start at striker in place of the injured Helder Postiga while the defensively suspect duo of Ronaldo and Nani take up position on the flanks, the game will almost certainly be decided before the ball reaches Ronaldo's boots—if it ever reaches Ronaldo's boots.

As was the case in Portugal's two most impressive performances so far—first when they kept the Germans in check in their opener and then when they ground down the Czechs in the quarter-finals—any chance for Ronaldo to impress will only exist if Miguel Veloso, Joao Moutinho, and Raul Meireles again turn in world class performances. This time, however, their task will be far harder than it was even against the Germans, with Spain expected to once again set out in a strikerless formation that could outnumber them six to three in the middle of the park.

They can expect little help from their forwards, a striker and two wide attackers who are at best ineffective and at worst indifferent when it comes to putting in a defensive shift. Meanwhile, Portugal's backline looks far from sound, with the once solid Bruno Alves in particular appearing well past his best. And even if do they win, it's likely they will receive little praise for doing the necessary dirty work in the rush to commend Ronaldo should he play an integral role for the third game in a row. Still, whether Portugal even have a chance—whether Ronaldo will even have a chance—depends almost entirely on those three men being able to keep the five or six Spaniards who will congregate in the middle in check. If they can, then the counter game and what seems an unlikely win on paper might just be on for the Portuguese.

The simple numbers of it, though, quite obviously favour Spain, and they will know it. As such, del Bosque will continue with what has been his favoured approach since taking up the mantle of national team coach from Luis Aragones, and Spain will seek to tire their opponent for seventy or eighty minutes before putting on a striker in search of a late victory over an exhausted foe. A Spanish goal could always come before then, of course, but pushing especially hard for one in the early going is unlikely to be in the game plan, especially with the threat of a counter through Nani or Ronaldo should an overly ambitious pass or too many Spaniards pushed up the pitch hand the Portuguese such an opening.

For those cheering for Spain, the game seems to set up perfectly for a late victory and advancement to Sunday's final. For everybody else, unless the Portuguese score early it could seem a very long ninety minutes.

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Correction: Soccernet's match listing suggested that no Portuguese player had registered an assist at the tournament. On further consideration this seemed unlikely, and UEFA's Euro stats tables confirm that unlikely in this case means "completely fricking wrong," as Joao Moutinho and Nani in fact lead Portugal with two apiece.

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