Jun 27, 2012, 4:42 AM EDT
At the beginning of the month, Portugal looked set to be an unfortunate casualty of the Group of Death, with Germany and the Netherlands picked to get through. Two and a half weeks, a Dutch collapse, and some exorcizing of Danish demons later, the Seleccao are riding a three-match winning streak into Wednesday’s semifinal with Spain. And if debunking conventional wisdom wasn’t enough for the Portuguese, they have one big reason to like their chances against the defending world and european champions: a 4-0, November win in Lisbon.
It was, however, just a friendly, and given some of the other stumbles Spain have had in the last year, Portugal would be wise not to take too much from it. Since the World Cup, Spain has also lost to Argentina, Italy, and England – all friendlies. hrough Euro qualifying and the finals, they’ve stayed undefeated, implying they’ve developed two gears: play, and play to win.
Which gear they’ve been in during this tournament’s been unclear. Three wins in four matches is a record bested by only Germany, yet in most of their games, the holders have looked more controlling than dominant. La Roja dazzled in their group stage win over Ireland, but in their other three matches, Spain played to their emerging stereotype: Unwilling to take the risks necessary to score goals. Just like all stereotypes, the reputation’s part hyperbole, part truth.
Portugal represents a big step up. Yes, Spain has faced and survived Italy, but with an in-form Cristiano Ronaldo, Iberia’s other power may be primed for the biggest win in their history.
Match kicks off at 2:45 p.m. Eastern. Here’s your playlist.
1. We’ve been here before
The most important defender for Real Madrid, Portugal center half Pepe is not only used to playing Barcelona, he’s used to succeeding. At least, he’s used to experiencing as much success as anybody has against Barça, experience that should serve him and his teammates well on Wednesday. As Spain keeps Portugal’s defense under constant pressure, Pepe can help maintain the Seleccao’s organization, his teammates having the confidence of knowing he’s been there before.
The same effect can be seen in midfield, though the leader there is more unlikely. Raul Meireles served as one of the keys to Roberto Di Matteo’s conservative set up as Chelsea claimed Champions League. He may not be Portugal’s best midfielder, but he’s the one that’s actually been crucial to a team that’s beat a Spain-like attack.
Portugal has the talent and approach to thwart Spain, but they don’t have experiences getting it done. With Pepe and Meireles, they have two players who’ve successfully implemented the plan, if not for Portugal.
Portugal can beat Spain without Cristiano Ronaldo having a big day, though it would be a lot easier if he did. Having scored all the Portuguese goals in their last two wins, Ronaldo has shown he’s capable of carrying his team to the semifinals. He’s also left Paulo Bento in search of a Plan B.
Nani seems like the most likely understudy, especially if Portugal can get him behind Jordi Alba. Even though Nani’s been most effective this tournament when providing for Ronaldo, he’s still capable of getting goals, especially when Joao Moutinho’s providing for him.
Beyond that, set pieces are a possibility, but with Portugal unlikely to hold much of the ball, corners and restarts could be few and far between.
Portugal has built their team around Cristiano Ronaldo, so for better or worse, they’ll need him to have a big day if they’re going to get past Spain. Based on how Ronaldo’s played over the couple of weeks, there are worse places to be.
3. Staying back
Given Portugal’s strength on the wings, Vicente del Bosque has a choice to make regarding his fullbacks. As the tournament’s progressed, both Jordi Alba and Arvalo Arbeloa have been pushing forward with little regard with what goes on behind them. Against Ronaldo and Nani, it’s not a strategy del Bosque’s likely to be comfortable with, given his four years of risk aversion.
Del Bosque might be thankful for some middle ground. Keeping Arbeloa back isn’t that big a deal. He hasn’t contributed much in attack anyway. Alba, however, has improved with each game and provided an assist from the left against France. Keeping him back could have a much bigger effect.
It might not be an issue. Against the Netherlands and Germany, Nani often played very deep on the right – much deeper than Ronaldo’s corresponding position on the left. If Portugal reveres Spain as much as they revered the Germans and Dutch, Nani won’t be asked to pin Alba back. Instead, he’ll likely the one asked to run with the soon-to-be Barcelona left back.
And if Spain’s not going to release their fullbacks, Portugal’s going to be very difficult to break down. But if we’ve learned anything about Spain, it’s that they will break you down. Just give them time. All the 1-0s in South Africa attest to that, with the world champions needing extra time to convert their dominance over the Dutch into the 2010 World Cup.
It may take as long to get past Portugal, but Spain needs to stay patient. That doesn’t mean they should refrain from diversifying their attack by using Jesus Navas, Santi Cazorla, Fernando Llorente – they definitely should do all those things. Along the way, they should remember that it took them 63 minutes to get their goal against Portugal in South Africa. They should remember that’s not uncommon.
For all the danger Portugal presents, they’re not better than the German team Spain dominated in the 2010 semifinals. Spain needed 73 minutes to break through them. Portugal’s not better than the Dutch team Spain dominated in the final. It look La Roja 116 minutes to get that goal.
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