The first semi-final of Euro 2012 sees Portugal take on reigning World and European Champions Spain in a match that has more than Iberian pride at stake. With both nations on the brink of economic ruin, football provides a sense of respite and threatens to bring a little joy and excitement; which, frankly, is what the entire tournament has provided to anyone and everyone who’s taken the trouble to fully consume it. Ironically the Spanish, so often lauded as the great entertainers, have in fact been criticised for their approach this time around in their slow-paced build-up and refusal to play an out-and-out striker which has irritated the tactically-ignorant at the BBC and ITV. There’s no doubt the system has worked: Vincent Del Bosque’s side are unbeaten and rock solid in defence having only conceded once in four games.
However some, myself included, have outlined potential flaws in playing a false nine, in the manner in which Spain have set up at least, in that they haven’t got a pacy winger to run in behind. Of course they have such options on the bench in the form of Jesús Navas and Pedro Rodriguez but La Roja have opted for a narrower frontline with Andrés Iniesta and David Silva cutting inside from the flanks. Consequently, the majority of the Spanish attacks come from through the middle, as is expected when you have Xabi Alonso and Xavi dictating the play from a central role, but with no runners and no target man, which they also have on the bench in Fernando Llorente, thus further outlining the strength in depth they possess, it often gets extremely congested on the edge of the 18-yard box.
Naturally, to get into the Spain team you need to have supreme ability, and the players have the capability to avoid hitting a brick wall through the intelligence of their movement; Cesc Fàbregas’ goal against Italy the case in point here. Nevertheless, there are times when simply you can’t break down a strong defence and whilst France came under vehement criticism last week, they were relatively solid and never looked like conceding through the middle. Some could argue Spain’s inability to force a way centrally was due to their, dare I say, seemingly relaxed approach to this tournament so far, in that they’ve been playing at a walking pace, or in second gear if we’re going to use much-favoured automobile metaphors. Therefore, they had to go wide to find an option and when teams attempt to compress Spain to such a degree, to try and suffocate the space and subsequent influence of Xavi and co, there is an awful lot of space in the wide positions, where the full-backs become an invaluable asset. My point of course being that the first Spanish goal against France came via a Jordi Alba cross from the left and throughout the game, Alvaro Arbeloa had the freedom of the right flank to roam in.
This is therefore worrying for any team playing against Del Bosque’s side in that they can put up barricades on the edge of the box but are therefore sacrificing space out wide, where the holy trinity of Xavi, Alonso and Sergio Busquets are free to pop passes and orchestrate a different flavour of attacking threat. This therefore puts a lot of tactical pressure on Portugal and manager Paulo Bento but they can certainly utilise their strengths in order to try and generate a favourable result. Whilst claims that Portugal are a one-man team are wide of the mark and somewhat hyperbolic, there is no doubt that Cristiano Ronaldo is by far their most important player and he will need to be on form if he is to lead his nation to a second European Championship final in eight years. He is certainly the hub of the side but is not playing in a central position, which actually makes him an even more crucial asset. Hélder Postiga has led the line for Portugal thus far but picked up an injury in the clash with Czech Republic and is likely to be replaced by Hugo Almeida. What Ronaldo inevitably brings is pace and power coming in from a wide area where, as mentioned beforehand, there is often more space.
The movement of Almeida will be crucial in allowing Ronaldo to penetrate in the final third by dragging defenders away, and perhaps allowing him to shoot from distance, where we all know he is so threatening. Besides outrageous skill, blistering pace and an impressive physique, what sets the Portuguese skipper apart is his borderline ambidexterity; he is just about as capable with his left foot as he is with his right. On the flank therefore, this gives his team a priceless weapon in that he can obviously come inside as he will do for the majority of the match, but is fully capable of taking his full-back on, going outside and delivering crosses. Likewise Nani on the opposite side, who perhaps needs to add consistency in his end product, but he has proven at club level he’s capable of quality delivery as well. In Almeida they have more of an aerial threat than Postiga and he will look to at least occupy the two centre-halves if he can’t personally attack the ball with any conviction. Ronaldo of course demonstrates his quality here as well because, as seen when scoring the winner in the quarter-final, he is capable of making a late, darting run into the box and getting on the end of crosses himself.
If Portugal can use the inevitable width to their advantage they can exploit the space and begin to pin back the Spanish full-backs and prevent them from swashbuckling into offensive positions themselves. Ronaldo’s aforementioned desire to come inside therefore gives more freedom down the left to Fabio Coentrão who has been nothing short of excellent in this tournament so far. His pace, daring dribbles and deadly delivery add another string to the ever-growing Portuguese bow. Whilst naturally not to the same unerringly accurate degree, the midfield trio of Miguel Veloso, Raul Meireles and João Moutinho will look to replicate the roles of their Spanish counterparts with short, simple passes, quite often into the flanks. Keeping the ball is imperative against a side that monopolise possession and simply won’t give it back to you, but doing something productive with it is more important.
By utilising the wings, Portugal not only get the best out of their offensive options but also negate a crucial element of the Spanish attack, thus forcing them to go down the middle where a compact midfield will look to plug gaps and frustrate. Discipline, from Veloso and Meireles in particular, is undoubtedly the name of the game here. This is of course far easier said than done and when Spain have such a wealth of talent to call upon from the bench it remains an extremely daunting task but if Portugal are efficient with the ball and rely on each other’s strengths, there’s no reason why they can’t spring a surprise and, potentially, go all the way and claim continental glory.
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