A penalty shootout began Spain’s era and a penalty shootout could have ended it. Instead, the dream of a unique treble is still alive. A 0-0 draw and penalties with Italy in the quarter-final of this competition four years ago was the turning point, a game that changed Spain’s history and changed their future. The man who scored the decisive penalty that night: Cesc Fábregas. On Wednesday night he again stood over the spot after 120 minutes had failed to yield a goal.
What Fábregas experienced, Cristiano Ronaldo could not. He was in line to take Portugal’s fifth and, he had hoped, decisive penalty. He did not get the chance. Xabi Alonso had seen his penalty, Spain’s first, stopped by Rui Patrício but Iker Casillas then saved from João Moutinho.
When it came to the fourth for each country, Sergio Ramos, who had blazed high over the bar in the Champions League semi-final shootout, clipped in a la Pirlo. “It seems to be fashionable now,” Del Bosque said. “I was delighted with it.” Bruno Alves then thumped his off the underside of the bar and away. As the ball bounced free, it took Portugal’s chances of reaching the final with it.
Fábregas scored. Spain had made it. Not the way they would have liked, not without a scare, but they had made it. “The players have played so many matches and they have to show their best in one more,” Del Bosque said.
This was indeed a game that offered little but tension until extra time when Spain finally created the chances that had evaded them before. Portugal broke from the normal mould employed by those that face the world champions, pressing where others sit, and for a time could feel entitled to the victory.
What few opportunities they created, though, were wasted on a night when the ball seemed to be forever flying over the bar and into the stands. Hugo Almeida was particularly ineffective. So too Alvaro Negredo, the striker surprisingly chosen to start for Spain.
An image of Spain’s difficulties came with a small inquest by the touchline during a break in the play half an hour in. Spain were struggling to get fluidity, pushed back, under pressure. Andrés Iniesta had curled over the top and the best chance fell to Alvaro Arbeloa, racing into the area in the opening 10 minutes and side-footing over, but the discomfort felt by the Spanish was clear.
The big change
Del Bosque decided to make a change. The second half was not even ten minutes old when Negredo was withdrawn for Fábregas. Less punch perhaps but more possession. Time to claim back the control that Spain had, for once, lacked. It took a while to arrive though – it would not be until extra time that Spain looked dangerous. And by then, Pedro Rodríguez and Jesús Navas had both come on, to open up the pitch and give pace and incision.
Until then a game that had begun with pace and intensity, the ball moved swiftly, had instead become disjointed, labouring towards the full-time whistle.