Euro 2012: Cesc Fabregas penalty sees Spain past Portugal into final
Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo in action with Spain's Alvaro Negredo during the Euro 2012 semi-final in Donetsk. Photograph: Robert Ghement/EPA
A penalty shootout began Spain's era and a penalty shootout kept it going. 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 Fabregas. Tonight, he again stood over the spot. Nervously, he talked himself through the moment, convincing himself that he could do it again. And then he ran up and scored, the ball flying into the net off the right hand post to send Spain into a third successive final.
A sometimes bad-tempered game of few chances and just one real save – and an easy one at that – had gone into extra time after a goalless 120 minutes. Shifting tactics and shifting men had done little to shift the scoreboard. Spain had included a striker here, but he had departed early and was not missed. Portugal's striker Hugo Almeida departed not much later and he was not missed either. In their absence, things hardly improved.
There was a surprise in Vicente del Bosque's lineup. This time there was no place for the No9 or the false No9. Instead, Alvaro Negredo was given his first start of the tournament. Powerful, quick and more adept at combining with the midfield than Fernando Torres, he had played 11 times for Spain, six of them as a starter. Spain won them all and he had scored six times. This, though, is the first time he has been taken to a tournament. Negredo had also faced Pepe six times for Sevilla against Real Madrid, scoring three times. Xavi soon looked for him in the inside right channel but Pepe was quick and strong.
The Sevilla striker brought another quality: the aggression and attitude to close down the Portugal back four. Spain's coaching staff had been particularly keen to prevent Bruno Alves seeking Cristiano Ronaldo from deep. Portugal still sought those diagonals, played early and often, pushing Spain back and quickly occupying the space created with a second wave of pressure from deep. Most sides wait for Spain. Portugal stepped up to confront them. Spain did not like it. The man most able to benefit from that was Ronaldo.
Ronaldo lurked left, Nani right. To start with, at least. But soon Ronaldo was appearing in the middle and dropping deep for the ball. As the first half progressed he caused Spain significant problems. Both Nani and Ronaldo were brought down as they ran at the Spain defence, although in Nani's case replays suggested that he wanted to go to ground. If it was deliberate, it was also daft: space had been opening up before him. There was less doubt about Ronaldo's tumble, for which Sergio Ramos was booked. And not long after that Jordi Alba turned into trouble, Joao Moutinho nicked it off him and Ronaldo struck the shot from the edge of the area into the side netting.
A small inquest was held by the touchline during a break in the play. Spain were struggling to get fluidity, pushed back, under pressure. They even started to look a bit ragged at times. The game was fast, the Portuguese faster. And yet from pressure came a chance for Spain when Xabi Alonso's long, swirling ball up the line, designed more as a release than a resource, found Negredo. He held it up on the edge of the area and pulled it back to Xavi. He found Andrés Iniesta, who curled a shot fractionally over the bar. It was Spain's second chance. The first had been equally unusual, Alvaro Arbeloa racing into the area in the opening ten minutes and side-footing over.
It was not just Spain that Portugal were pressing. They worked on the fourth official too. And when the half-time whistle went, they headed for the referee. Arbeloa saw it and intervened but the discomfort felt by the Spanish was clear. Strikingly, when they did try to hold the ball and take the sting from the game, fans here whistled them. Raul Meireles and Moutinho had rarely allowed them to settle, while Nani and Ronaldo had forced them back. Mistakes were made.
Del Bosque decided to make a change. The second half was not even ten minutes old when Negredo was withdrawn for Cesc Fabregas. Less punch, more possession. It was time to claim back the control that Spain had, for once, lacked. But it was Portugal who first got the chance, when Almeida took on the shot from 25 yards. A moment later, he was taking aim again. Not for the first time a simple long ball bypassed Spain's midfield. Ronaldo and Almeida combined, the shot travelled harmlessly wide. The game was almost an hour old and there had not yet been a save from either keeper. When Ronaldo sprinted into the area soon after that he went down under the slightest of pressure from Ramos. Sergio Busquets asked for a yellow card; Busquets got one. A minute later, so did Pepe for a knee-first leap with Alonso. Spain now made a second change – Jesus Navas for David Silva.
A game that had begun with pace and intensity, the ball moved swiftly, had become disjointed. When Xavi hit a shot into the arms of Rui Patricio just before the 70th minute, it was the first save of the game. And when, straight away, Almeida hit the ball harmlessly wide from the inside left position, it left a familiar feeling. He was removed ten minutes from time, his impact almost as minimal as Negredo's.
Not only was this a flat game, it threatened to become an unpleasant one at times too. Pepe screeched when challenged by Alonso and Alves thundered into the back of Fabregas. He escaped a yellow card that time but when he clobbered him from behind as he looked to turn five minutes from the end, he finally got one. There were more shots travelling over the bar, from two Ronaldo free-kicks to Fabregas's 20-yarder. And a second save, if it could be called that, came ten minutes from the end when Iker Casillas easily caught an in-swinging dead ball from the right.
From a similar ball swung in, this time from the left, Portugal got the break that could have won it. Spain were suddenly wide open, Meireles leading the charge. Ronaldo roared up alongside him and received the pass. His shot was wild. It also went over. It was the story of the game. Extra time loomed.
At last there was a chance worthy of the name. Pedro, Alba and Iniesta made it and everyone on the Spanish bench came running off it, seeing the final rear into view. The ball though drifted agonisingly wide. Sergio Ramos then thumped in a free-kick with the last touch of the first half of extra time. Like virtually every shot that went before, it flew over. It was close though. Well, closer.In the 100th minute there was another opportunity, the game's best. Arbeloa overlapped, pulled the ball back for Navas and his shot from just beyond the right-hand corner of the six-yard box was saved by Rui Patricio. Next Fabregas brought down a punted ball and sent Pedro racing through but as he cut inside, Coentrao smashed the ball clear. This was Spain's best period: for all the fatigue, they searched for the goal. Alba was screeching forward, Fabregas was involved, Pedro too was determined to run at the Portuguese, Iniesta trying to move the team. Even Arbeloa was joining in. Forward they went, at last, their minds were made up: Spain wanted to avoid penalties.
They need not have worried. Cesc Fabregas did it again.