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Euro 2012: Will Portugal stop Spain?


Portugal's Pepe heads the ball during a Euro 2012 preliminary round game versus Denmark last week. (AP/Sebastian Widmann)

Spain strolled into the Euro2012 semi-finals with a 2-0 win over a lackluster France. Much like in the 2010 World Cup – when they won each knock-out round and the final 1-0 – Spain played by keeping possession, then scoring, then keeping possession. To the purists, Spain exudes everything football’s meant to be; but I’m beginning to get a bit bored by them. Give me an error-ridden 3-2 game where both teams attack and you don’t know what’s going to happen next.  Spain has the talent, so why not go and win 4-0 or 6-3?

I read on another website that Spain represents the ultimate achievement of the FIFA rule changes in the past ten years, particularly more yellow cards for minor fouls and even less leniency for tough tackles. In the past, teams like Spain were disrupted by reckless/malicious tacklers. Opposing players would take turns to clatter into players like Inesta and Alonso, either avoiding bookings or sharing them around, and change the game as a result. By today’s standards for bookings, classics like the 1970 World Cup final would have finished eight a side!

Against Spain, France’s game plan seemed to be keep the scoreline close (something that can be done, even if you don’t have the ball very much) and then hope for a late equalizer or a piece of Ribery magic. Neither happened, so the Spaniards go on to face Portugal next Wednesday – and I’m tipping Portugal to spring a surprise. This is why: Spain’s style of play is, of course, like Barcelona’s. To have a chance against them, you have to score first. This is what Chelsea demonstrated in 2012’s Champions League, and, more recently, Italy did in Group C’s opening match. France set up their team too defensively – why not have a go at Spain and take the game to them? Put them under pressure and see if they make mistakes? France’s midfield stood too far off the Spaniards and, as ESPN’s halftime analysis showed, Malouda was particularly culpable.

I actually think Spain is less dangerous in 2012 than they were in 2008 or 2010. In these previous tournaments, you couldn’t risk pushing too far forward as Fernando Torres (when he was on top form in 2008) or David Villa (in 2010) could use their speed to get behind a defense. In 2012, with Fabregas up front, or some other “false striker,” the risks of pushing forward against Spain are reduced. Spain doesn’t break quite as quickly as other teams in the tournament. Rather, they swarm the area around the box, looking for short passes or a delicate chip over the back line.

I looked up the statistics for Spain’s four games in Euro2012 so far. Italy had ten shots against them, Ireland and Croatia took six shots each, and France five. That’s a total of 27 shots in four games. I didn’t look it up, but I think that’s how many shots Christiano Ronaldo usually has per half -- you need to take shots against Spain, early and often, and get ahead.

So Portugal has two options. One, attack Spain and get the ball to Ronaldo so he can shoot as much as possible and, if that doesn’t work, option two is to absorb Spanish pressure and then get the ball to Ronaldo so he can shoot. Because, if there’s one player who is more than capable of getting a goal or two against Spanish defenders and is happy to take a shot, it’s Christiano Ronaldo – after all, he scored 46 goals in La Liga in 2011-12. Ronaldo’s currently on fire with three goals and four posts in the last two games, and he’s been taking control of games almost single-handedly. His colleagues, such as Nani, can be explosive too and is also far from shot shy. As Portugal’s 6-2 win in the Euro2012 play off over Bosnia demonstrated, and their 4-0 exhibition win over Spain in 2010, Spain may well have their hands full with the Portuguese. 

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