In-depth look at Spain, Portugal

Spain's Fernando Torres (R) and Portugal's Bruno Alves fall after a challenge during the a 2010...

Spain's Fernando Torres (R) and Portugal's Bruno Alves fall after a challenge during the a 2010 World Cup second round soccer match at Green Point stadium in Cape Town June 29, 2010. (REUTERS)

MIKE ZEISBERGER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:51 PM ET

DONETSK, UKRAINE - An in-depth look at Spain heading into ITS Euro 2012 semifinal showdown Wednesday against Portugal at the Donbass Arena in Donetsk:

How Spain can win

To say "keep doing what you're doing" seems cliche, but it is applicable here. Spain is gunning to become the first team to win three consecutive international tournaments by adding Euro 2012 to its Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010 titles, so why change now?

There is no team on the planet that can pass with the efficiency and flair of the Spaniards. At times, it is as if they are saying "It's our ball and you can't have it." More often than not, it is a blueprint for success.

Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo does pose a problem and will get his opportunities. He might have the most lethal boot off free kicks and from outside the box since Spice Girl squeeze David Beckham was in his prime. There's not much you can do about that. But keeping the ball away from him likely will cause Ronaldo to become frustrated and take him off his game. You can bet the Spaniards know it, too, having seen him compete on a weekly basis in La Liga with Real Madrid.

Three key Spanish players to watch

1. MF Cesc Fabregas

Spanish manager Vicente del Bosque has used a formation featuring six midfielders at times, a unique setup that has worked for him because, frankly, he has the horses at his disposal to do it. In two of Spain's four games thus far, striker Fernando Torres has started games on the bench because of it. Del Bosque can get away with it, because, in Fabregas, he has a hybrid who can flow into the striker's role at any time with lethal efficiency, as shown by his two goals in the tournament. He is especially dangerous on the counter-attack when his speed and ability to work wonders with the ball can cause headaches for any defender.

2. MF Xabi Alonso

Often overshadowed in Spain's ridiculously talented midfield by Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta, Alonso showed he, too, is a force to be reckoned with by his two-goal performance in the 2-0 quarterfinal win over France. Calm, cool and collected like most of his teammates, the one-time Liverpool player has shown just how much of a catalyst he can be when teams direct attention at Xavi and Iniesta. He might get lost in the public eye sometimes but that does not make him any less valuable in the eyes of del Bosque.

3. D Gerard Pique

He and teammate Sergio Ramos will get the call to smother Ronaldo, if that's possible, Of course, for Pique, defending against the world's best is his forte. England's John Terry might get more press, sure, but Pique is the guy who cleans out the back when the pressure begins to mount from the opposition. He's also sneaky on corner kicks in the offensive end, often coming into the box just as the ball is struck. He's very good on delivering headers.

Did you know?

  • * Spain has not lost in 18 competitive games dating to its shocking 1-0 loss to Switzerland on June 16, 2010 at the World Cup in South Africa at the FIFA World Cup. They have lost four of their 14 friendlies during that span, however.
  • * Iniesta and his friends have compiled a nine-game winning since their 1-0 loss to England on Dec. 12.
  • * Iker Casillas has gone 299 minutes without conceding a goal since Antonio Di Natale scored for Italy on June 10.
  • * Xavi Hernandez has made more completed passes at UEFA Euro 2012 (734) than any other player on a UEFA European Championship team. He broke the record for passes in a single game against the Republic of Ireland (133).
  • * Cesc Fabregas has made six substitute appearances in the UEFA European Championship, only one shy of the mark held by former Toronto FC boss Aron Winter of the Netherlands.

PORTUGAL

An in-depth look at Portugal heading into its Euro 2012 semifinal showdown Wednesday against Spain at the Donbass Arena in Donetsk:

How Portugal can win

The Spanish are a ball-control team that likes to play keep-away. Therefore the key to staying in the game is patience. Star Spanish midfielders Iniesta and Xavi wait until impatient defenders overcommit, then strike up the field with pace in order to get numbers in their favour on the attack.

Offensively, the Portuguese cannot be reluctant to get the ball to Ronaldo, no matter how closely he'll be marked. Sure, you can bet the Spanish, despite their claims this week that there are more Portuguese players to be concerned about than just Ronaldo, will have some defensive layering system in place to keep bodies between Ronaldo and the goal. That should not alter Portugal's efforts to get the ball to him. Ronaldo is the hottest player on the planet right now and has shown a penchant for going to the ball instead of waiting for it to come to him. His header goal in the quarterfinal against the Czechs was a perfect example of how he shed defenders while the ball was in the air.

Three key Portuguese players to watch

1. F Cristiano Ronaldo

While the critics (yours truly included) were ripping the Portuguese star for not showing up in the first two group games, he has responded in a huge way, scoring three goals in the past two games, leading Portugal to victories over Holland and the Czech Republic and a berth in the semis against Spain. "I knew the goals would come," Ronaldo said Tuesday. Hard not to take him at his word, especially the way he is playing right now. Perhaps the best indication of how he is starting to buy into the team concept is when he scored against the Dutch to tie the game 1-1. Instead of doing his usual Ronaldo over-the-top celebration, he called the entire team over so he could celebrate with them. A motivated Ronaldo + Ronaldo the "team" player = trouble for the opposition.

2. D Pepe

The emotional leader of this team, Pepe, 29, is coming into his prime. Watch him on the pitch and he is constantly directing teammates into the proper positions and encouraging them. His goal against Denmark is proof that he can provide some punch from the back end. But his true value against Spain will be holding down the fort defensively and making sure the likes of Fernando Torres and Cesc Fabregas don't have too much real estate to romp around on.

3. F Hugo Almeida

With F Helder Postiga out with a thigh injury, this is the man likely to replace him. With Ronaldo drawing so much attention from defenders, that leaves opportunities for the other players up front such as Postiga. If opportunity knocks, you'd best take advantage of it. Against Spain, you never know when another might come.

Did You Know?

  • * Portugal was in a four-game losing skid, scoring just once during that period, before beating Denmark in the group stage. The Portuguese now have three successive victories.
  • * Cristiano Ronaldo needs just one more goal to equal the UEFA European Championship record of 22 (qualifying included).
  • * Ronaldo has scored six goals in the UEFA European Championship final, matching Nuno Gomes' national record.
  • * Portugal has hit the post six times at Euro 2012, one more than any other team in championship history. Ronaldo alone has struck the woodwork four times.
  • * Ronaldo's three goals in this tournament have lifted his international goal total to 35, third on Portugal's career scoring list. Only Pauleta (47) and Eusebio (41) have more.

 

 


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