When you think of Spanish football, you think patience, passing and a potency in front of goal. You think, of course, of tiki-taka.
Last night, facing a Portugal side playing with pace and purpose, Spain spent the majority of the 90 minutes placing more emphasis than usual on containing the opposition.
As the first semi-final of Euro 2012 went into Extra Time, so the effort on Portugal’s behalf began to show.
They tired, and Spain grew more influential in attack as they were afforded more time and space on the ball.
They completed 553 passes in normal time – significantly less than their usual output of around the 8-900 mark – but a further 202 in Extra Time alone.
Portugal, meanwhile, benefiting from marauding runs from the likes of Fabio Coentrao and Joao Pereira from the back and the guile of Nani on the wing, made 329 passes in the first 90 minutes as they took the game to Spain, then just 84 in the following 30.
As their influence waned, Spain’s obviously grew. The holders had been desperately holding out for the final whistle – particularly as Raul Meireles burst through, laying off Ronaldo before their talisman blazed wildly over – but half an hour later it was a familiar story.
Though Spain may have finished on top they had been anything but throughout; and therein highlighted a steely quality which is hardly surprising – their centre-back partnership is one of the most formidable in the world – but comes as something of a shock simply because it is necessary so very rarely.
I tipped Spain to see off the Portugese threat, but did not expect it to be in the defensive nature in which they did.
Portugal started with verve and purpose, akin to that of their 4-0 thumping of the Spaniards in a 2010 friendly following the 2010 World Cup. Nani, enjoying a fruitful tournament out wide, was impressive again on the wing, and Ronaldo spent the first 45 minutes in a worryingly-for-Spain state of determination.
In midfield, Joao Moutinho added to his list of impressive performances in Poland-Ukraine with a real soldier’s performance. Pepe was as uncompromising as ever at the back and the aforementioned Pereira and Coentrao gave Spain all sorts of problems out wide.
It was the Madrid left-back in particular that was providing Spain with particular cause for concern, with Arbeloa under constant threat down that side.
For once, it was the turn of the Spanish’s defence to come under the spotlight. Casillas unconvincingly palmed a deep cross behind for a corner in the early stages as Portugal’s game plan was clear – attack hard, press harder.
Giving the Spanish as little time on the ball meant tiki-taka was hurried and though the quick feet of Iniesta, Xavi, Busquets, etc. are undoubted, there is a limit to how much they can do.
Spain were restricted to long hoofs from the back – ironically, this resulted in one of their better chances in the first half – on more than one occasion and for the first 45 minutes they looked utterly rattled. Portugal were beating them at their own game.
But in football, you ride your luck often, and how you respond can define a result.
Pique and Ramos were much more convincing after half time as they dealt more assuredly with a similar workload. That Ronaldo’s influenced waned rather significantly in the second-45 tells you as much.
It seems strange applauding a Spain win based on their defensive resilience. But in football, it is considered that winning when you don’t play well is the hallmark of champions.
It seems even stranger to suggest Spain didn’t play well – 550 passes with a 85% pass completion, more attempts on goal, greater territory etc. – but it was certainly a much lower level than we’d previously seen. A tribute to the way Portugal carried themselves throughout.
In the end, for all Portugal’s efforts, they failed to test Casillas once. Zero shots on target. Some of this is down to Spain putting bodies on the line, some of it down to profligacy – look at Arbeloa’s wayward shot in the first half – and some of it down to better pressure in the second half from the Spanish backline, which restricted Portugal to crossing more from wide positions and shooting from further out.
The latter is probably the most significant. In the first half Portugal, prompting and probing the opposition defence, looked more and more likely to find a gap, exploit it, and score.
As the half neared its end, it seemed only a matter of time. It’s a testimony to the Spanish defence it never appeared.