If one was to take a Vincent del Bosque approach – pragmatic, calculated and ruthless – to looking at Spain’s recent tournament knock-out results, there’d be little in the way of hope for their semi-final opponents Portugal.
Since 2004, when the former incarnation of the Spanish national side – remember, the one that used to overpromised and underwhelm – went out in the group stages (incidentally by losing 1-0 to Portugal in their final group game), they have played eight knockout games, scored nine goals, not conceded, and progressed each time.
It’s a daunting stat that would terrify most prospective opponents. But Cristiano Ronaldo is not most opponents, and he is certainly not a man who is daunted easily. And thanks to his imperious recent performances and three well-taken goals, his Portugal team are playing in similarly confident mood. Not only that, but they will know that this Spanish side is not the unmovable object that the stats suggest.
Against a disappointing French side on Saturday, the Spanish again progressed without conceding a goal, yet still showed elements of weakness. Their passing was not as fluid (even the usually unflappable Xavi was sloppy at times), while their decision to once again adopt Cesc Fabregas as a false nine failed to genuinely worry France through the middle, with their new centreback pairing of Laurent Koscielny and Adil Rami coping admirably with much of Spain’s efforts.
Instead Laurent Blanc’s decision to employ two right backs down the right flank backfired dramatically. If not for a Mathieu Debuchy slip in the 19th minute, freeing Jordi Alba to pick out Xabi Alonso, and a sloppy Anthony Reveillere challenge in the dying seconds that ensured Alonso ended his 100th international game with a second from the spot, it could be argued that Spain would have really struggled to find a breakthrough.
And had Karim Benzema and Franck Ribery – laden with heavy touches all evening – put in the sort of performance close to the level of Ronaldo, Spain’s defence could have been severely tested. Similarly, Italy found plenty gaps in a Spanish backline they were able to penetrate once, and had Croatia been more ruthless on the counter attack in their final group game, the World Cup winners might have been unceremoniously dumped out.
Yet it’ll be one specific weakness that Portugal, and in particular Ronaldo, will fancy their chances at exploiting against the Spanish on Wednesday. Spain’s right flank. While Blanc paid left back Jordi Alba the ultimate compliment by fielding two full backs up against him on Saturday evening, he wasn’t quite so kind to Spain’s right full back Alvaro Arbeloa. In fact, he opted to leave him completely free altogether.
The intention was to allow Ribery to roam forward, and ignore the need to track back and follow Arbeloa’s forward runs, the theory being that Arbeloa is the least likely to punish the French in the attacking third. It led to a bizarre scenario where even Arbeloa’s Spanish teammates agreed with Blanc, often opting to completely ignore the full back despite him being completely unmarked and in plenty of space in France’s final third.
Spain weren’t sufficiently tested however because France’s decision to double-up on the right relinquished some control in midfield, allowing Sergio Busquets to cover for Arbeloa’s failings, and because Ribery failed to bring his A-game.
Portugal are unlikely to make the same conservative changes, and with their tightly packed midfield trio of Veloso, Moutinho and Meireles more than enough for Alonso and Busquets to keep an eye on, Arbeloa may not get as much protection this time round, music to the ears of Ronaldo (6/1 to score first) and fellow dribbler Nani (14/1).
Portugal are 10/3 to spring the surprise of the tournament so far, with the Euro holders 10/11 favourites.
All Odds and Markets are correct as of the date of publishing.