Counter-punching Portugal prepare Spain ambush
DONETSK, Ukraine: Having swept past France to reach the Euro 2012 semi-finals, Spain can expect a more exacting ordeal on Wednesday when they face a Portugal team who beat them 4-0 in their last meeting.
Spain have largely held the upper hand against their Iberian rivals, losing just nine times in 37 encounters, and they edged Portugal 1-0 in the last 16 en route to their triumph at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
However, Portugal claimed emphatic revenge less than five months later with a four-goal victory in Lisbon that condemned the reigning world and European champions to their heaviest defeat in 47 years.
The teams have changed little since. Nine members of Portugal’s likely starting line-up at Donbass Arena in Donetsk on Wednesday featured in the game, while Spain are expected to start with eight of the same players.
Cristiano Ronaldo terrorised the Spanish back line at Estadio da Luz two years ago and would have claimed one of the finest goals of his career had Nani not headed his goal-bound shot over the line from an offside position.
The 27-year-old is not short of scores to settle against a team who can call upon five of his Real Madrid colleagues.
After match-winning performances against the Netherlands and the Czech Republic, he is finally making his mark at a major tournament and Spain’s ability to keep him quiet will be pivotal.
The match should provide an intriguing clash of styles, with Spain likely to dominate possession while Portugal await opportunities to spring forward on the counter-attack.
“Portugal will be very difficult,” said Spain’s Cesc Fabregas after Saturday’s 2-0 win over France.
“They have strong individuals and strong players. Apart from their good open play, they are very good on the counter-attack, and we’ll have to work hard.
“They have Ronaldo, Nani, Raul Meireles, Joao Moutinho. They have very good players.”
Spain have lost only three times in 47 competitive matches and are closing in on an unprecedented treble of major honours, but Portugal right-back Joao Pereira says his side can take heart from their own recent form.
“We’re going to keep our own personality because things are going well,” he said.
“We have respect for them, of course, because they’re world and European champions, but we’re not going to give them too much respect because it’s 11 versus 11, and we play good football.”
For the first time at the tournament, Portugal coach Paulo Bento will be obliged to change his starting line-up due to the thigh injury sustained by striker Helder Postiga in Thursday’s 1-0 win over the Czech Republic.
Werder Bremen’s Hugo Almeida is set to deputise, while defenders Pepe and Fabio Coentrao both returned to training on Sunday after sitting out Saturday’s session to rest injuries.
Spain reported no new injuries after their victory over France, but coach Vicente del Bosque must decide whether to persevere with Fabregas in the ‘false nine’ role or restore Fernando Torres to his starting XI.
While Spain are gunning to become the first team to win three consecutive major international tournaments, Portugal are aiming to reach a first final since their heartbreaking loss to Greece as hosts of Euro 2004.
The two sides’ records in semi-finals are sharply contrasting.
Spain have never been beaten at this stage of an international competition, but Portugal have won only once in five attempts.
Even the great Eusebio succumbed to the country’s semi-final jinx, with a late penalty not enough to prevent Portugal losing 2-1 to England at the 1966 World Cup.
The 70-year-old will not be present on Wednesday after being taken ill at Portugal’s team hotel and going to hospital, but he has since been given the all-clear. Victory for Portugal would be the perfect get-well gift.