Thursday, 28 June 2012

Day Twenty

Portugal 0 Spain 0

Penalties 2 - 4

We're through to the semi-finals now, and soon this wonderful, special time will be gone for another two years. Meanwhile there seems to be some tennis on. It isn't terrible, but it fails the crucial quality test, which is can you be offside in it? If you can't, and to my knowledge there's no offside in tennis at all, then it's clearly a sport that needs to work on its zoning principles.

When we got to the semi-finals in the last World Cup the surviving teams were Holland, Uruguay, Germany and Spain, which gives us the acronym HUGS. It was a poignant moment when I realised this, almost as if the World Cup was saying goodbye to me with a last fond embrace. This time it was Portugal, Italy, Germany and Spain. And the Iberian Derby Started us off.

Everyone complained about it, for some reason. Hansen, Shearer, Dixon and Lineker all tore into it at full time like it was Kendo Nagasaki and they were Giant Haystacks. Twitter resounded with the moans and groans. Actually that's too low-pitched a verb. We want something less like a bass drum, and more like the sound of millions of tiny insects. Chittered. That's it. Twitter chittered like locusts in a field of disappointing maize.

Their main objection was the lack of shots on target, but it's worth remembering that efforts like Iniesta's shot just over or Ronaldo's free kicks don't count towards this total. We've all seen games that probably looked better by shot count than this one,  because of all the feeble efforts that roll comfortably to the keeper without drama, but count towards the stat.

It's true that there were some lacklustre performances. Spain went with a striker, but the striker they went with was Negredo, who seemed to have a very unforwardlike reluctance to get in the action. In the end they took him off, but replaced him with Fabregas rather than Torres. It seemed surprising, but then there were some who were surprised when Torres even got in the squad after the season he's had. You can't have it both ways.

For Portugal, Almeida did poorly. This was a shame, because for much of the game Portugal were getting at least as much of the attacking play as Spain, but instead of getting Almeida to lay it off to Ronaldo or Nani they kept laying it off to him instead. You could put this down to poor attacking strategy, but you could just as easily credit the strong Spanish defensive play. They knew Ronaldo and Nani were the danger men, so they screened them more effectively than they did Almeida. When Almeida did get chances, there was always a defender on or around him to make his shot harder. Eventually Bento replaced him with Oliveira.

Portugal started with a high pressing game, harrying Spain on the ball, and it was eight minutes before Spain managed to string some passes together. When they did, Arbeloa and Iniesta both had shots over from the edge of the box. You get the feeling if they want to turn it on they can, said Keown.

I started to wonder if there was an element of smoke and mirrors to their passing game. They made a couple of misplaced passes in successive moves, and it struck me that if I saw that down Ashton Gate I would instantly identify it as an error. When it's Spain, we somehow want to see a failed move as a near success.

Portugal can string a few passes together themselves, although the difference is that Spain could carry on doing it even if you took away any single player. They may be missing Puyol or Villa, but they're still in the semifinals. If Ronaldo had gone down with gastroenteritis the night before their first game they'd all be on the beach at Faro by now. He'd be the Groucho to their lesser brothers, if you were constantly filled with the desire to punch Groucho in the face.

We had a Lynne Truss moment in the first half. Are you watching, England? said Martin Keown. We're definitely not watching England said his colleague, having apparently heard Keown speak without the comma. I once ate a sandwich apparently made of dolphin, friendly tuna and sweetcorn, so I feel quite strongly about commas.

At one point, Spain were so unnerved by Portugal's pressure they took the highly unusual step of lumping it forward. It nearly worked out for them, bouncing handily to Negredo on the edge of the box. With his back to the ball he laid it back to Silva, who knocked it sideways to Iniesta. His shot flew just over, but it seemed ominous at the time. It seemed just as ominous the other way when Ronaldo had a shot two minutes later, which shaved the edge of the post. Ronaldo claimed Casillas had saved it, but a replay showed otherwise.

After the break both sides proceeded through the medium of the corner for a while. There was a sense that the balance of power was once more - well, in the balance. It would be something of a misnomer otherwise, like a standee, or the Ministry of Defence.

Almeida had a shot after 57 minutes. He's not missed by all that much, but he did have Ronaldo to his right and Nani to his left, said the commentator. On the hour mark, Pepe got booked for flattening Alonso with knee and elbow simultaneously. Yet still people said it was a game with nothing to see. Go out on the street now and hit someone with your knee and your elbow at the same time, then come back and tell me about the lack of skill on display.

On 72 minutes Ronaldo earned and took a free kick, which flew over by about a foot. On 82 minutes he was fouled again, thirty yards out in a good shooting position. Arbeloa got booked for handling the first free kick, and Ronaldo got another go, that much closer. It was too high again. If he'd had his original position, it might have had time to get it down.

On 85 minutes Alves was booked for a poor tackle on Jordi Alba. The entire Portuguese back four were now on yellow cards. It's perhaps not surprising that Spain dominated the play from here on. Veloso also got booked for a routine challenge bang on full time. It was the eighth booking, in a game that hadn't been especially dirty.

Spain took Xavi off for Pedro. It struck me that for a player like Xavi, substituted in a semi-final when you're 32 years old, you must leave the pitch entirely uncertain whether you'll ever get back on the biggest stage of all again. He knows now that he will, but we all remember Gary Lineker getting substituted against Sweden, in what turned out to be his last England game.

The full time whistle went, to apparent universal disdain. I was having fun even if nobody else was. I 'd already written this in my notes by then.

Spain weren't playing terribly, but the delicate little flicks and dummies, the pinpoint passes that bisect the defence, all this was missing. But the overall quality of the game was so good that you started to hope no-one scored, because it was the kind of game that one goal would win, and a single goal would deny us extra time.

I should add two caveats at this point. It's certainly true that towards the end of normal time the quality of play declined. This isn't unusual, as players often start to worry about making the mistake that would lose the game. When Portugal broke from a Spanish free kick on the stroke of full time, we all assumed Ronaldo would raise the quality for that crucial split second with his shot. It didn't work out that way.

It's also true that my beer drinking strategy hadn't taken extra time into account, and to be honest there came a point at which the quality of my note taking went into something of a decline. I did notice the way that Spain seemed to take over. There's a desperate look about the Portuguese, said Martin Keown just before Ramos blasted a free kick just over. Shortly before that Iniesta had had a shot saved when he was clear through.

Portugal must have been glad when the whistle blew for the end of the first period of extra time. They brought Custodio on for Veloso, then Varela on for Meireles. They were trying to hold on by this point, and did a reasonable job of it. Pedro nearly got away in the 23rd minute, but the Portuguese defence just recovered in time and were able to put it out for a corner. There was a lot of Spanish huffing and puffing (well I was drunk, what do you want me to say), but then it was penalties.

Both teams missed their first, then scored their next two. Weirdly, Alves walked up to take the third for Portugal, then got sent back by Nani. He'd clearly got the order wrong. From that, and the look on his face, it was no surprise when his effort was saved. As @michaelhogan tweeted, Alves has left the building.

Fabregas' penalty wasn't great, going in off the post, but it won the game for Spain. What was going on with Alves? I've never seen that before.

Ronaldo, meanwhile, never got to take one. Fabregas said afterwards that he was down to go second, but had asked del Bosque if he could go last because he had a premonition that he'd score the winning goal for Spain. If Ronaldo had thought something similar it was too late now.

So Spain against Germany or Italy. If they win, they become the first team ever to lift three trophies in a row - The Euros, the World Cup then the Euros again. You wouldn't bet against them.

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