As we approach the final three matches of this summer’s European Championships, first up this Wednesday is a semifinal clash between heavyweights Spain and Portugal.
This fixture took place two years ago in the 2010 World Cup Round of 16, of course, when Spain knocked Portugal out en route to their title.
Two years hence, this is a Spain side that has become known for Vicente Del Bosque’s 4-6-0 formation and that hasn’t been firing on all cylinders all tournament. But their status as the reigning champions and also world champions grants them the title of the world’s best.
Paolo Bento has turned a Portugal side so disappointing under Carlos Queiroz into dark horses for the title this summer. Portugal have considerable strength in depth in the midfield and will look to pose a significant problem to the Spanish defence.
Now let’s look at five key battles that will take place in Donetsk’s Donbass Arena when Spain face Portugal in the Euro 2012 semifinals.
Let’s get the most important matchup out of the way.
Cristiano Ronaldo, who is in scintillating form at the moment after a two-game mini-slump at the start of the group stages, will find himself up against the entire Spanish defence, but his free role cutting in from a left-wing position sees him officially facing off against Real Madrid teammate Alvaro Arbeloa.
Arbeloa, who is perhaps known more for his defensive work than his attacking attributes, will need to be at his very best if he is to contain his club colleague.
But Arbeloa has a track record of performing against the world’s best players: His debut for Liverpool came at Camp Nou, when he was thrust into an unfamiliar left-back position tasked with shutting off Lionel Messi. He came through unscathed and with an enhanced reputation.
But Portugal are by no means a one-man team.
While Ronaldo has deservedly taken most of the spotlight, on the opposite flank is ex-Manchester United teammate Nani, who has been quietly tearing up continental defences this summer.
The excellent support work from Paolo Bento’s midfield trio of Joao Moutinho (more on him later), Miguel Veloso and Raul Meireles has allowed their wing wizards to work their magic on the flanks.
Jordi Alba, who is relatively new to the international scene, will have his hands full trying to nullify Nani’s impact on the wings.
He might have to curb his own attacking tendencies to help his team out, which will hurt Spain going forward.
And now, the battle of the midfield maestros.
Xabi Alonso endured a quiet opening to the tournament, but he exploded into life with an exquisite diving header and a clinical penalty against France, becoming the second-highest scorer in the Spanish national team (with 14 goals) since Vicente Del Bosque took over.
But it is his ability to keep possession and dictate the balance of play that sets him apart as one of Spain’s most important players.
Opposite him is a midfielder who has matured into Portugal’s most important midfielder, Joao Moutinho.
His passing, ability to find space and impeccable teamwork with the aforementioned Veloso and Meireles have seen him rise to one of the Euros’ star midfielders this summer.
Whoever wins this battle might just tip the result in his team’s favor.
In attack, possibly a more surprising choice for a matchup, given that Jesus Navas might reprise his role as a substitute for Del Bosque, but it is the tantalizing prospect of him taking on Fabio Coentrao down Spain’s right flank that really captures the imagination.
It remains to be seen whether Del Bosque will set his team up in the same 4-6-0 formation that has served Spain well this tournament against the considerable threat posed by Portugal’s wingers, but Navas has been the man his coach has turned to when his side needs an injection of pace and creative brilliance.
Fabio Coentrao, who burst onto the scene in the World Cup with a series of impressive performances as an attacking full-back, will relish running at the Spanish midfield and defence, but only if he doesn’t have his hands full.
If and when Navas does come onto the field of play, will it be Navas to track back and try to contain a flying Coentrao? Or will Coentrao have to drop deeper to deal with Navas’ pace?
In the absence of an out-and-out striker in Spain’s formation, Pepe will probably find his aerial game less challenged, but his feet plenty occupied by Del Bosque’s false nine, Cesc Fabregas.
Spain’s pure system of interchanging midfielders and attacking midfielders has confused many of their opponents so far, most of whom have resorted to sitting back and trying to attack Spain on the counter.
Portugal, a side known for their attacking brilliance, seem unlikely to play to Spain’s high-pressure, passing system.
If Bento’s side do assert themselves against the world champions, Spain’s midfielders will have plenty to deal with in the middle of the park, which might see Cesc Fabregas drop in deeper to help out.
All this, including Pepe’s life in the Portugal back four, would change, then, if Fernando Torres or Fernando Llorente were sent on.
What are the battles you’re looking forward to on Wednesday? Who do you think will march on to the final? Let us know in the comments below.