Here are three thoughts on Spain's 4-2 shootout victory (0-0 after extra time) over Portugal in the Euro 2012 semifinals ...
1. Spain is deservedly one step closer to a historic achievement. No team has ever won three major international tournaments in a row, and now Spain is a mere 90 minutes from doing just that. The fact that it will have done so with three different sides, playing three different styles, makes the potential achievement all the more remarkable.
The final analysis shows that Iker Casillas had no saves to make in the match while Andres Iniesta and Jesus Navas forced Rui Patricio into crucial stops in extra time (Patricio also had his gloves warmed by a Xavi Hernandez long shot). This should surely end talk of Spain's control of matches being boring -- a surprising argument that has gathered momentum with little consideration for how opponents (Portugal aside) set up defensively against it.
Spain's first title of this golden era, at Euro 2008, was much more offensive, when it played a 4-4-2 system and scored plenty of goals (Spain beat Russia 4-1 and then 3-0 in the semifinal). At the World Cup, it had more pace up front with David Villa and Pedro Rodriguez as starters. This time around, coach Vicente del Bosque has switched between Cesc Fabregas as a "false number nine" and Fernando Torres at center forward. Against Portugal, he threw a curveball and picked Alvaro Negredo to start, a move that didn't pay off. Yet once again, del Bosque's substitutions made a big difference: The introduction of Jesus Navas and Pedro Rodriguez on the wings gave Spain discernible momentum in extra time.
The win gives Spain's its ninth consecutive knockout victory without conceding a goal, and extends Casillas' streak to 419 minutes this tournament without allowing a goal, a new European Championship record. This was also Casillas' 100th victory in international football, another record mark.
All things considered, Portugal may have given Spain a scare in that first half -- and it certainly made France's tactics in the quarterfinal look even more baffling. But thanks to the reigning champion's improvement in the second half and, in particular, extra time, Spain's place in the final is justified.
2. That career-defining moment still eludes Ronaldo: Cristiano Ronaldo has played in plenty of big games before -- the Euro 2004 final, the 2006 World Cup semifinal, the 2008 Champions League final (in which he opened the scoring for Manchester United, before missing a penalty in the shootout) and last season's Champions League semifinal (another missed shootout penalty). But more than any other match, this one could have provided his career-defining moment. And he was a constant menace in this game, shooting from distance in the first half, and firing two free-kicks over the top late on in the second (perhaps not surprising, given his strike-rate of two goals in 55 efforts last season). The moment he had been waiting for came in the 90th minute: a four-versus-two breakaway, a pass from Meireles but Ronaldo, breaking into the area, smashed his left-footed shot over the top.
Then came the penalty shootout, and Ronaldo's role -- or not -- in it will be debated long into the Portuguese night. Ronaldo was waiting to take the fifth kick, but could only watch on in shock as Bruno Alves hit the bar with the fourth, as Cesc Fabregas went on to secured the win. As Portugal's first-choice penalty kicker, it seems bizarre that Ronaldo never got a chance.
And yet before Ronaldo gets too much stick, which is bound to come his way, consider this: in the 2012 Champions League final, Didier Drogba struck Chelsea's fifth and winning spot-kick. Even Ronaldo himself, back in the 2006 World Cup quarterfinal win over England, hit the fifth and winning penalty. So taking number five is not hiding: but you do need your teammates to keep you in the shootout to get that far.
Yet I wonder if Portugal had done its research on the shootouts: London School of Economics professor Ignacio Palacios-Huerta carried out a study of all penalty-kicks going back 20 years in which he showed that, in a shoot-out, penalty-kicks one and four were the most decisive. England, in its defeat to Italy, missed three and four; Portugal missed one and four.
Even if Ronaldo was slated to take number five, I think he should have jumped the queue once Sergio Ramos scored with his composed 'Panenka' chipped penalty down the middle. This is the same Ramos whose spot-kick in the recent Champions League semifinal loss to Bayern Munich spawned an App called 'Angry Ramos' which involves guiding Ramos's skied penalty as it traveled the world, past Pep Guardiola riding a rocket and Jose Mourinho appearing from behind clouds.
Already, Alves looked shaken by Nani recalling him from the edge of the penalty area so he could take penalty number three. And stepping up after Ramos's brilliant penalty increased the psychological pressure, just as Italy's Andrea Pirlo did when doing the same past Joe Hart on Sunday night. England's next penalty, taken by Ashley Young, hit the bar -- just as Alves's did. Ronaldo will no doubt get criticized for not taking a penalty, but to blame him for his teammates' failings, on this occasion, is harsh.
3. Cesc Fabregas is a phenomenon at this level. Fabregas wasn't sure of his place on the team at the onset of this tournament, and he certainly had not played his best football for Barcelona as the season ended. But something happens to Fabregas when he plays for his country. Quite simply, he is an unbelievable tournament player. It's been that way ever since he was top scorer -- and was named Player of the Tournament -- at the 2003 Under-17 World Cup in Finland in which Spain lost to Brazil in the final.
One year later, Fabregas was named Player of the Tournament at the 2004 European Championships (Spain was again runner-up). When Luis Aragones provided him with his senior debut in March 2006, Fabregas was 18 and the youngest capped Spaniard for 70 years -- and he set up a goal in Spain's 3-2 victory over Ivory Coast. Two years later, he became the youngest player to reach 50 appearances, celebrating the occasion with another goal in Spain's 6-0 rout of Poland.
But it was at Euro 2008 when Fabregas' true tournament value shone through. He scored his first competitive international goal in Spain's 4-1 group win over Russia, and then came off the bench to score the winning penalty in the quarterfinal shootout win over Italy. That was the key victory en route to the trophy, something that Xavi later admitted. "The Italians always used to beat us, and even when the penalties were going on, we could see them relaxed and laughing as if they had already won," Xavi said.
Fabregas, 21 at the time, came off the bench to replace the injured David Villa in the semifinal against Russia. He set up two goals in the 3-0 win and cemented his place for the final, in which Spain topped Germany 1-0. He played the role of second striker alongside Fernando Torres as if he had been playing there his entire life, and he secured a place on the UEFA Team of the Tournament.
At the World Cup, Fabregas came off the bench four times in seven matches, and his last appearance was the most significant: It was his slide-rule pass that set up Andres Iniesta for the winning goal in the final. And against Portugal on Wednesday, he again showed his class. He was brilliant in extra time, delivering a clever through ball that released Pedro and Navas on the flanks, and stepped up to take the decisive fifth penalty. Just like against Italy four years earlier, he mumbled some words of encouragement before slotting the ball in off the post. It was close, but it was in.
"Cesc is Xavi, Iniesta and Xabi Alonso all in one, a striker when needed, a holder at other times, a young man with the football wisdom of a veteran," El Mundo Deportivo's Cordula Reinhardt told me before the game. And the best may be yet to come. Cesc is only 25, already has 69 appearances to his name and is surely a Spanish captain of the future.