Wednesday 24 January 2018

Fabregas hits the spot for Spain

Portugal 0 Spain 0 (Spain win 4-2 on pens AET)

Mark Ogden

Cesc Fabregas converted the decisive spot-kick as Spain reached the final of Euro 2012 after a nail-biting penalty shoot-out victory over Portugal in Donetsk.

With the scores locked at 2-2, Sergio Ramos chipped in coolly for Spain, and the advantage swung the holders' way as Bruno Alves' shot hit the bar. Fabregas then scored the winner, meaning Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal's captain, never got to take his penalty.

Ronaldo had earlier wasted a chance in the 90th-minute to prevent the 'extras', but the Real Madrid forward, taunted by chants of 'Messi' by the small band of Spain supporters inside the Donbass Arena, shot wide from 12 yards after racing onto Raul Meireles' pass following a Portugal counter-attack.

Having seen two free-kicks sail over the Spain crossbar earlier, this was Ronaldo's chance to justify his build-up as the man who would topple the Spaniards from their throne.

But he failed to take it, forcing the two teams to battle out a further 30 minutes of extra-time and then the dreaded penalties.

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Having deployed Fabregas in the 'false nine' role or Fernando Torres as the spearhead of Spain's attack so far in this tournament, Vicente del Bosque sprung a surprise by naming the Sevilla forward Alvaro Negredo in his starting line-up for the first time at Euro 2012.

With Portugal's resolute defence proving to be the bedrock of their progression to the semi-finals alongside Ronaldo's goals, the more physical presence of Negredo was clearly intended to put pressure on the Portuguese defence.

Negredo lacked the flair of Fabregas and the pace of Torres, but his selection had the desired effect, with both of Spain's early chances involving the 26-year-old.

Just nine minutes into the game, Negredo created a clear chance for full-back Alvaro Arbeloa by laying off an Andres Iniesta pass to the former Liverpool defender, who found himself with an unobstructed strike on goal from 20 yards.

Instead of striking the ball, though, Arbeloa displayed the finishing of the defender that he is by side-footing high over Rui Patricio's crossbar.

Twelve minutes later, Negredo once again acted as the hub of Spain's attacking forays by latching on to Xabi Alonso's long pass before laying into Xavi, whose instant pass to Iniesta resulted in the Barcelona midfielder curling his effort over the bar.

By that stage, Spain were having to overcome the crowd as well as their Iberian neighbours, who went into the game having never beaten the opposition outside of Portugal.

For whatever reason, though, the majority of those inside the three-quarters full Donbass Arena were backing Portugal and their unsporting whistling of Spain's players whenever they began to pass the ball around the pitch was a strange development.

The failure of Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir to book Sergio Ramos for an early foul on Nani, when play was simply waved on, angered the Portuguese and appeared to win over the neutrals.

Before the game, concern had been voiced in Portugal over the selection of Cakir due to UEFA's referees' committee being chaired by the president of the Spanish Football Federation and a Turkish vice-president, Senes Erzik. It smacked of Portuguese paranoia, the worst of Jose Mourinho's 'us against the world' mentality being aired by the Real Madrid manager's fellow countrymen.

Ronaldo, the man who struck fear into Spanish hearts, struggled to make an impression in the first half and it was the tenacity of midfielder Meireles and Joao Moutinho that caught the eye.

Resilience and aggression tends not to be enough against Spain, however, and while Ronaldo remained quiet, Del Bosque's team had the edge.

The Spanish players, wearing black armbands as a tribute to the 23-year-old Real Betis defender Miki Roque, who last a battle against pelvic cancer at the weekend, simply lacked a finishing touch to round off their dominance of possession.

Portugal's readiness to hassle Spain began to frustrate Del Bosque's team, however, and the fluency of their passing markedly diminished.

Such was Spain's inability to keep the ball early in the second half that Negredo was replaced by Fabregas in an attempt to regain the upper hand.

Only Spain could take off their only forward and replace him with amid fielder while drawing 0-0, but the switch highlighted Del Bosque's lack of faith in Torres, who remained rooted the bench.

When David Silva was replaced by Jesus Navas on the hour, it was another blow to Torres' status as the No 1 striker in the Spain squad, which he now, quite evidently, is not.

Portugal were able to capitalise on Spain's uncertainty by creating a succession of chances, but none were good enough to trouble goalkeeper Iker Casillas.

Hugo Almeida sent two left-foot strikes high and wide before Ronaldo was booked for complaining at Cakir's refusal to give a penalty following a Ramos challenge on the hour mark.

There was nothing wrong with the challenge and Ronaldo's reaction merely highlighted his growing frustration.

But Spain's match-winners were also having an off night and it was not until Xavi struck a 25-yard shot on 68 minutes that either goalkeeper had a shot to save.

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It descended into a war of attrition, a series of fouls by both sets of players, but Portugal's best chance came courtesy of a free-kick awarded following the merest brush by Arbeloa on Ronaldo.

It was hardly a foul, but in a game of few opportunities, a set-piece from 30 yards was as good as it got, with Ronaldo to take the free-kick. Casillas will have seen him practising on countless occasions in Madrid, but he would still have counted his blessings as his effort dipped inches over the crossbar.

And when Ronaldo repeated the trick with another free-kick which sailed narrowly over on 85 minutes, before blazing wide with his injury-time chance, it summed up his night.

Iniesta brought a great save from Rui Patricio in the 14th minute of extra-time when the Barca star found room in the box and his shot was blocked from eight yards out -- but that was as close as it got.

Irish Independent

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