Portugal vs. Spain: 6 Reliable Predictions for Euro 2012 Semifinal
Somewhere deep inside, we knew it would come to this. Portugal vs. Spain. Ronaldo vs. Tiki-Taka. Real Madrid vs. Barcelona. The All-Iberian Semifinal.
In the 2010 World Cup, Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal were successful in the group stages, but ultimately had their path to glory blocked by Spain, who would go on to win the whole thing.
This time, you could well argue that Spain is just a bit weaker, Portugal is a bit stronger and Cristiano Ronaldo is hungrier than ever before.
Will that be enough to make up the gulf in overall quality, though? In a sport which we repeatedly trump up as the "complete team game," can one man rise above the rest on the pitch and will his country to victory?
Maybe, maybe not. Here's what we predict we'll see in this dramatic Euro 2012 semifinal.
Spain Will Continue to Employ Their False Nine System
Hate it or love it, Spain's false nine system has gotten them this far, and Vicente del Bosque is unlikely to drop it so far into the tournament.
Of course, what so many people fail to realize is that Spain's success with the system is still very limited. Their big 4-0 win over Ireland came when they employed a traditional Spanish 4-2-3-1. Their 4-6-0 has earned them a 1-1 draw with Italy, a last-gasp 1-0 win against Croatia and a respectable 2-0 win over France.
The system obviously guarantees that Spain will dominate possession and make loads of (sometimes unnecessary) passes, but it also means that Spain will likely not have many shots on goal, and not be as dangerous up front as they would be with a target man.
Like Barca's tiki-taka system, Spain's false nine system's biggest flaw becomes apparent when the team concedes early.
Of course, scoring first against Spain—or Barcelona for that matter—is no easy task, but if Portugal can score and remain composed for at least 10 minutes after the goal, they could be well on their way to an upset.
Portugal Will Attack Down the Flanks of Their 4-3-3
France knew that Spain's weakness was its usual lack of width, so Laurent Blanc tried to take advantage of this by playing many wide players.
Unfortunately, in doing this, he left France's central midfield rather unprotected, and Spain was able to easily manipulate that to its benefit.
Portugal will not have the same problem. In the 4-3-3 they've used all tournament long, Fabio Coentrao, Joao Moutinho, Joao Pereira and Nani have all demonstrated their ability to exploit the flanks and feed a central player, be it Helder Postiga or Cristiano Ronaldo.
So far, Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique have demonstrated excellent ability in dealing with aerial threats, but they have yet to come up against Ronaldo. If he can get regular service down the flanks, I wouldn't be surprised to see him add to the already large total of headed goals scored in this tournament.
Nani Will Have a Good Game
As the saying goes, every Batman needs his Robin. Behind every superstar in world football is at least one world-class star who is also able to contribute in a remarkable way.
Ronaldo has Mesut Ozil and Karim Benzema (among others). Lionel Messi has Xavi and Andres Iniesta (among others).
At these Euros so far, Joao Moutinho has been Ronaldo's Robin. He's added an extra element on quality to Portugal's three-man midfield that has often carried the team in its dry spells.
But against Spain, Moutinho will be faced with having to keep the likes of Xavi, David Silva and likely Cesc Fabregas in check, while having to overcome the likes of Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets on offense. Needless to say, he'll have a lot to deal with.
In his stead, I believe Nani will finally step up. He's recorded two assists in these Euros, but he's been a fairly quiet performer thus far.
There are never very many goals scored in these tight, knockout-round matches, but I expect a moment of trickery and brilliance from Nani will lead to either a goal or an assist for the Manchester United winger.
Xavi Will Be Spain's Man of the Match
Prior to Spain's 2-0 win over France, Xavi had averaged almost 150 passes per game and six key passes per game. The closest player to that number was Xabi Alonso, with about 120, and the closest non-Spaniard was Igor Denisov, with about 100.
In other words, Xavi completely controls the passing game whenever he is on the pitch. He is the orchestrator, manipulator and heartbeat of the Spanish team.
Luckily for Portugal, both Pepe and Coentrao should be familiar with Xavi's game so as to know what to expect, but I still wouldn't be surprised to see him exploit any mistakes they make on defense.
This won't be a game for Xabi Alonso and Jordi Alba to shine the way they did against France. Portugal's defenders are much more experienced than the likes of Anthony Reveillere and the rest of France's defense, and they won't leave a player with acres of space on a cross.
This will be a game Spain wins the way they enjoy winning: by passing Portugal to death and looking for that small opening with which to freeze the defense.
My money's on Xavi finding that opening.
Portugal Will Score on the Counter
It's a given that Spain will control possession in this match and play their usual slow build-up offense. Any team with Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets will naturally gravitate to such a system, as even even when the system gets beaten, it still usually finishes the match with more possession than its opponent.
The only question is how Portugal will respond. For me, Portugal's 4-3-3 already seems to be a system set up to score off counterattacks, and many of Portugal's players possess the pace that you'd need to excel on the counterattack.
Ronaldo has shown a penchant to score on the counterattack all year long, and I think he'll do it again here.
Spain Will Win 2-1
As much as I'd personally love to see Spain dethroned, I can't see Portugal doing enough to overcome Spain.
There's a chance, especially if they score first, that they'll spring an upset, but ultimately I think Spain's midfield will suffocate the game, suffocate Portugal's offense and control the tempo of the match.
If they succeed in doing this, they'll likely frustrate Portugal's defense into making mistakes. With somebody as temperamental as Pepe in defense, that shouldn't take too long.
Then, once Spain take the lead in the game, they'll pass the game to death, creating chances every so often to score a clinching goal or to simply take more time off the clock.
It really will come down to the timing of Portugal's goal. If Portugal can score first, we'll surely have a spectacle on our hands. If not, it'll likely be business as usual for the Spanish.