Portugal teammates Fábio Coentrão, left, and Cristiano Ronaldo, right, leave the pitch following their penalty shootout loss to Spain in their Euro 2012 semifinal.
To hold Spain scoreless for 120 minutes is no easy feat.
Unlike other teams who have faced the Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010 champions in recent history, Portugal did not sit back and defend with 10 men. This generally is suicidal against Spain—their mercurial midfield will always punish even the slightest of defensive mistakes. Once in the lead, Spain uses their unrivaled ability to keep possession to squeeze the remaining life from their frustrated opponents.
But Spain couldn't score. In fact, they couldn't even really dominate—something we've come to expect from them, regardless of the quality of the opposition.
Portugal in many ways deserved to win the game tonight. They didn't concede, they created a plethora of chances but, most importantly, they didn't allow Spain time to dominate the midfield. Portuguese coach Paolo Bento really got his tactics right—his team went toe-to-toe with Spain.
Unfortunately for Portugal, at times this isn't enough. Spain is too talented a team to be solely reliant on their midfield. To win, you have to score, and Spain defended beautifully tonight. Where Portugal is due credit, so is Spain, even if Portugal seemed to deserve it more.
Penalties it would be.
Sergio Ramos stepped up and confidently produced a chip much like Andrea Pirlo's just days before. Apparently, in Euro 2012, if you chip a penalty up the middle, the next penalty taker will miss by hitting the crossbar. That's just what happened, as Bruno Alves' penalty crashed off the crossbar. 3-2 Spain.
Cesc Fábregas dispatched his penalty to a thunderous crowd roar and rapturous celebrations, and Spain advanced to the final, wining 4-2 on penalty kicks.
What about Cristiano Ronaldo?
Immediately following the game, I got a text from a friend that read, "Why didn't Ronaldo shoot?" I explained to him that Spain mathematically sealed the victory, and it would be pointless for Ronaldo to take his penalty.
Then it hit me—Portugal got their order all wrong.
Never save your best for last, at least in a penalty shootout.
Penalty shootouts often end in one or both teams not having shot five penalties. If one team makes its first three shots, and the other fails to score any of those three, mathematically, four players will have not taken their shots.
Influence on Probability
Penalty shootouts are a game of probabilities and percentages. Some reduce them to a coin flip. Why, then, would you risk the probability of having your captain and star player not shoot?
I don't like to place blame on a single person for a penalty shootout loss, but the reality is that Ronaldo is a better penalty taker than Bruno Alves. Ronaldo should have been first, second or third.
In a do-or-die situation, Portugal coach Paolo Bento got it wrong. Bento was naïve to place Ronaldo fifth in the pecking order. There is definitely a case to be made for placing someone capable of handling the often critical fifth penalty kick. Still, though, that is easily outweighed by that player's chance at not shooting at all.
The decision for Ronaldo to shoot fifth is indicative of an inexperienced manager. Bento is 43 years young.
Compare his tactics to those of seasoned Spain coach Vicente del Bosque, who is 61. Del Bosque chose Xabi Alonso, Spain's best penalty taker (he takes them during the games—we can assume he's the best), as his first shooter. Sure, Alonso's shot was saved, but again, penalty shootouts are unpredictable—anything can happen.
Because of this, there's no knowing what would have happened if Ronaldo had shot, say, third. Spain might have still won anyway, however, it's clear that having your best player at least shoot a penalty raises your chances.
In a game of percentages, you have to play it safe.