After four relatively disappointing quarterfinal matches, we hoped the two semifinal matches would live up to high expectations. Here is Sid Lowe writing right after the quarterfinals ended and the semifinal matchups were set:
Spain versus Portugal, Germany versus Italy. The semi-finals couldn’t be better. Packed with plots and sub-plots, redemption and revenge, history oozes through them. There is something big, something historic, something right about these match-ups. For Spain, “historic” could be meant literally. They are chasing a unique treble: no one has won consecutive European, world and European titles before. The closest were West Germany; they lost the 1976 final to the Czechs when Antonin Panenka took the penalty that Andrea Pirlo emulated.
The first semifinal certainly had plots and sub-plots: the intra-Iberian rivalry, a close Round of 16 match at World Cup 2010, Cristiano Ronaldo trying to carry Portugal practically by himself, backed by Real Madrid teammates Pepe and Fábio Coentrão, going up against another set of Real Madrid teammates (their club and Spain’s captain Iker Casillas, Xabi Alonso, Álvaro Arbeloa, Sergio Ramos) combined with the core of archrival Barcelona (Gerard Piqué, Sergio Busquest, Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta, Cesc Fàbregas, Pedro Rodríguez)–albeit lacking Ronaldo’s nemesis Lio Messi of course, but who was also a sub-plot to the tournament, as Ronaldo sought to finally accomplish with this tournament one of the few footballing successes Messi yet hasn’t.
The match itself was odd. The first half was compelling, as Portugal came out to play: pressing Spain, disrupting their usual strangehold on possession, making moves and getting the ball forward into some potentially dangerous positions. Indeed, ZonalMarking headlined his match summary “Portugal upset Spain’s rhythm…”
But that was only the first half of the match–and the first half of ZM’s headline. The 2nd half was desultory, with neither team creating much of interest. And for all of Portugal’s attempt to take the game to Spain, the 2nd half of ZM’s title was “..but fail to record a shot on target.” That’s right–not a single shot on target for Portugal in 120 minutes of scoreless play. Spain wasn’t much better in regulation. But contrary to the conventional wisdom that they might wilt given they were playing with two days less rest than Portugal, Spain found new life in extra time, thanks in great part to speedy wide forwards Pedro and Jesús Navas. (After Vincente del Bosque’s experiment of starting central striker Álvaro Negredo having failed. We still can’t believe striker Fernando Llorente hasn’t seen the field at all the entire tourament!)
It looked like Spain was going to repeat the feat of the World Cup final two years ago, with a winning goal in extra time–from Iniesta in particular, who couldn’t put a golden chance past Portuguese keeper Rui Patrício (who made a few big saves; plays for Sporting CP btw), created by a great attack and pass by Pedro. At this point Portugal looked spent, hanging on for penalties.
Like Italy-England three days earlier, penalties provided a memorable finish to an otherwise forgettable match. And like Italy-England, the shootout featured a Panenka, but from an unlikelier source than the cool Pirlo–here it was hard and hotheaded defender Sergio Ramos who surprised (especially after he skied his shot into the cheap seats in the shootout that ended Real Madrid Champions League campaign against Bayern in the spring). But there was more that will stick in the mind from this shootout: Nani pulling back Bruno Alves to take Portugal’s 3rd penalty; Alves then taking Portugal’s 4th, which he banged off the crossbar; Cesc stepping up to take Spain’s 5th, which he caromed in off the post, clinching the match for Spain, just as he hit the winning penalty in the Euro 2008 quarterfinals against Italy–and on this night leaving Cristiano Ronaldo at midfield shaking his head, not even having taken a kick, after being slotted for Portugal’s 5th shot!
It was the night Mario Balotelli announced himself as a serious, grown-up footballer, capable of shaping the bigger occasions. There have been plenty of times he has threatened it before but he has never shown so much efficiency and clinical, sometimes devastating, centre-forward play, or the unmistakable sense that he is unwilling to jeopardise all that raw ability with something far less endearing.The outcome is that Italy will meet Spain at the Olympic Stadium, Kiev, on Sunday whereas Germany are denied a 14th appearance in the final of a major tournament and will be able to testify, in great detail, what a formidable opponent Balotelli is when his mind is clear and his only motivation is to demonstrate those qualities of penetration, directness and powerful finishing.
And after a night like that:
The details of the semifinal results, with links to UEFA.com’s match reports/facts: