El Centrocampista

Fine margins between Spanish success and failure

Four years after Cesc Fabregas stepped up to fire the decisive penalty past Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon in the 2008 European Championship Quarter-Final shootout, the former Arsenal skipper was at it again in Donetsk on Wednesday as his spot kick booked Spain a place in their third successive tournament final.

One inch further left and the ball would most probably have ricocheted back out again. One inch further right and Portuguese goalkeeper Rui Patricio would most probably have got his hand to it. As it was, the ball clipped the inside of the post just beyond the grasp of the Sporting stopper and nestled into the bottom corner of the goal to send to favourites in the EURO 2012 Betting Odds through to the Kiev showpiece on Sunday. Such are the fine margins between victory and defeat in football.

Overall Spain probably deserved the victory, despite it coming in such a haphazard manner, and they are well on course to secure an unprecedented third consecutive tournament triumph. It was close however. Portugal performed admirably and  Paulo Bento surely won the tactical battle as his side harried Spain into a string of uncharacteristic mistakes – most notably during an intriguing opening 45 minutes.

The Portuguese trio of Miguel Veloso, Raul Meireles and Joao Moutinho gave little respite to the Spanish midfield and the noramlly-imperious  Xavi Hernandez had one of his least influential games in recent memory. The pressing left Spain unsettled and frontman Alvaro Negredo was reduced to spectator role as his team mates struggled to find a way past their well disciplined  Iberian neighbours.

The inclusion of the Sevilla striker, ahead of Fernando Torres and Fernando Llorente, was already highly contentious before the game and his lethargic display did little to suggest Del Bosque had made an inspired decision. It was not all Negredo’s fault however, with little space or time on the ball for the Spanish midfield, the former Almeria striker was starved of any worthwhile supply.

The second half saw Spain dominate possession, however the fact they created few real chances (not making one successful pass into their opponents area according to statistics obtained from Sports data provider Opta) added more fuel to the ‘Spain are boring’ debate.

Both sides looked fatigued during the latter stages of the game, Portugal no doubt drained from the hard-work of the opening half and Spain feeling the effects of two less days recuperation between their last game, and it was evident one goal would most probably prove decisive.

Portugal got their opportunity when they caught Spain on the counter-attack minutes from the end of normal time, however a poor ball from Meireles left Cristiano Ronaldo unable to hit the target. It was a fantastic chance for Bento’s side and Ronaldo was quite visibly agitated that the Chelsea man could not find what looked a simple ball.

The introduction of Jesus Navas added some impetous down the Spanish flank but the Sevilla winger often looks directionless and struggles to produce quality deliveries when found in dangerous positions. This attacking incisiveness is obviously a problem for Del Bosque’s side overall and the coach has still to decide who offers the most effective outlet for Spain.

The Negredo experiment failed and Cesc Fabregas was brought on to occupy the ‘false nine’ role which helped link the midfield and forward areas, however Spain still looked fairly impotent in the final third. Torres has obviously lost the confidence of one of his most-loyal supporters while rumours have also been circulating that Llorente has found himself in the cold after refusing to link up with the national side earlier than he wanted.

Whether that is true is unclear, however it would certainly explain why the Athletic Club star has sat on the bench throughout the tournament thus far.

Portugal had their own problems upfront and lacked any attacking threat, bar the Meireles-Ronaldo counter attack that could have won the game for them. Ronaldo himself was largely anonymous during the encounter and the fact that he was left beaten at the end of the shoot-out, without having even taken his spot kick was farcical – there are now sure to be questions asked about the decision to place the captain fifth on the list of penalty takers, behind the likes of Bruno Alves who missed his decisive kick.

Nonetheless, Spain probably feel victory was deserved after their second-half and extra-time dominance, and they will now be keen observers of Thursday’s match between Germany and Italy to see who they will face in Kiev on Sunday.

Germany are quite clearly the more dangerous of the two sides, however Italy have already frustrated Spain in their opening match and Cesare Prandelli’s side provided an uncomfortable 90 minutes overall for Del Bosque and his men. It may well prove that Joachim Lowe’s flowing Germans could allow Xavi, Alonso and Busquets the time and space that was so lacking against Portugal last night.

Whoever they face, and despite the criticism of some disjointed displays, the Spanish are just one game away from making more history. For that they have Cesc Fabregas to thank – both for his winning spot kick on Wednesday night, and the one he converted in 2008 to set Spain on the way to glory.

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