Portugal vs. Spain: 5 Keys to a Spanish Victory in Euro 2012 Semifinal Match
Ronaldo vs. Gerard Pique. Andres Iniesta vs. Pepe. Cesc Fabregas vs. Fabio Coentrao.
No, this is not a rematch of Spain's famous El Clasico, it is just a taste of what the first Euro 2012 semifinal gives us.
Defending champions Spain will take on Portugal and a red-hot Cristiano Ronaldo. The Iberian clash will pit two of the world's most talented starting XIs against each other.
The winner will earn the right to play for European glory on July 1st.
These two teams are very familiar with each other. It was Spain who knocked Portugal out of the 2010 World Cup with a lone goal before going on to win the tournament.
The next time they met, Cristiano Ronaldo led his team to a 4-0 rout of Spain in a friendly. Both of those matches will be studied extensively by both sides in preparation for this bout.
What are the keys to winning for Spain? Read on to find out.
Control the Wings
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Portugal is a very talented team with stars throughout the starting XI. Joao Moutinho, Pepe and Miguel Veloso are just a few names that will pose a problem for Spain.
But no one will argue that Portugal's most dangerous weapons are their wingers. Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani are a handful for even the best fullbacks in the world.
A lot will be asked not only of Spain's right and left backs, but also of their teammates.
Alvaro Arbeloa and Jordi Alba will struggle against Nani and Ronaldo so the CBs will need to stay close down on them quick if they move inside and do a near-perfect job of marking when they put the ball in the air.
The defensive midfielders—most often Sergio Busquets—will also need to provide cover. The defensive pivot will need to help direct Portugal's passing inward while also closing down the central passing lanes.
If everyone does their jobs well, the defensive pivot will have a lot of balls to mop up when Portugal's attack fizzles.
Test the Keeper
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One major criticism against the defending champions is that their attack is a bit predictable.
The Spaniards often use a number of short, quick passes to break down defenses with the occasional through ball from Xavi.
In the starting XI, there are few players who are willing to take a shot from outside the box and even fewer who are very dangerous from distance. Spain's most dangerous threat—Santi Cazorla—has only seen the pitch once.
That means players like Xavi, Xabi Alonso, David Silva and others with a decent shot will need to make use of any space they find and test goalkeeper Rui Patricio.
Portugal's defenders have been fabulous all month and excel at killing the short passes that Spain relies on so much.
If they are going to get the two goals that will likely be needed to reach the finals, Spain needs to do more than just walk the ball into the goal. They will have to take some shots.
Limit Space Created from Pressing
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Spain is known to press the opposing midfield when they lose the ball and this is when they are at their weakest.
This creates large spaces for Portugal's midfield to pass into and makes Spain vulnerable to a quick counterattack.
This is what Portugal will look to take advantage of and is exactly what Spain's midfielders need to be mindful of. It is important to not lose the ball in areas where Portugal has strength in numbers.
When that happens, the Portuguese midfielders can keep the ball away from Spain long enough to send the ball forward to the wingers. Once Ronaldo or Nani find space on the break, they will always be dangerous.
When Spain does lose the ball, teammates need to stay positioned so that they can cut off the immediate passing lanes for Portugal.
Guys like Sergio Busquets and David Silva did an excellent job of this against France, but Portugal's midfield should do a better job of clearing those zones as well as pressing the midfield.
The number of chances Portugal creates may be limited, but their stars need only one chance to reach the final.
Be Patient and Prevent an Early Goal
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Portugal's speed at both ends makes them the perfect candidate to finally score first against Spain. We know they can do it and so does Spain.
This makes a good start paramount to Spain winning this match. Portugal will have the speed advantage, but that may work out in Spain's favor if their opponents tire too quickly.
If they can score first or at least not allow Portugal to, they can limit first-half chances and grind out a a late goal
Every team Spain have faced has created chances, but none were able to capitalize on them. Of course, none of their previous opponent had Portugal's attack.
Spain will be the more tired side, so a shaky opening 15-20 minutes could be all Portugal needs to beat their neighbors.
Limit Set Pieces and Crosses
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Just like Barcelona and Real Madrid this season, Spain have looked shaky on set pieces and crosses—not shocking considering the average height of the team.
Portugal has also looked a bit vulnerable in the air at times, but given the number of aerial scoring threats playing for Spain, Portugal should dominate every ball put into the air.
Portugal has numerous players who are good in the air—Ronaldo and Pepe, for example. They also have a number of players who can create enough space to send crosses into the box.
This means that Spain will need to show tremendous focus and discipline when Portugal has a chance to put the ball in the air.
With Nani and Ronaldo running down the flank and Moutinho capable of breaking the line, Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique will have a lot of responsibility on their shoulders in the semifinal clash.
For more of my stuff, check out the 5 Keys to a Portuguese Victory.