Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The last 4 - now the fun begins

We have our first semi final - the Iberia derby! Spain v Portugal. The rivalry itself is not as intense as one would think based on their geographic location. I think a large reason is that they have not had too many major matches on the pitch, aka World Cup or European Cup (they had a 1-1 draw in the Euro group stages in 1984). They also do not have big rivalries at the club level. But obviously there is a geo-political rivalry. Add to this that Portugal's best player - Ronaldo - plies his trade at Real Madrid and we do have some intriguing story lines.

Keys to Portugal
All the talk before this tournament is whether or not Spain would be able to challenge history by winning three straight major tournaments. Both Germany and France fell short of this ambitious goal themselves. In addition, many are expecting to see a Spain v Germany rematch in the finals. I am not one of those. Three reasons why I think Portugal will pull off the upset and reach their second European Cup final:

  • Spain's "luster" has worn off. Take aside the feeble attempt by France to play a defensive formation to surprise Spain in the 1/4 finals and the reality is teams have started to figure out La Roja. Without a healthy Villa, and a less than optimal Torres, Spain have not had the one key element that makes their tiki-taka game lethal: a striker that can spring up behind the defense to score. Del Bosque has insisted on playing with Cesc at that role, with limited success. Take aside the Ireland game and the Spain offense has not looked as deadly as it did in the past. Add to this losses to the likes of England, where Spain dominated possession but England just sat back and hit them on the counter...1-0. Or the two losses where they gave up 4 goals to Argentina and Portugal. I realize those were all friendlies. But they demonstrated that teams have started to figure out Spain. Of course understanding and doing are two different things...
  • Which leads me to point #2, Portugal is getting in a grove...especially Ronaldo. Tournaments are all about how you finish not how you start, how is that for a cliche! Look at Portugal, they emerged from the group of death. Take out the first 60 minutes against Germany and they have been a very dangerous team. Denmark gave them a run, but if Ronaldo had been more clinical that game would have been 4-2 Portugal. Against Holland they once again showed their resilience, being down early they calmly fought back and earned the victory. They have been building every game. Of course they had to wait late against the Czech Republic, but they did what it took to get through. And looked the more dangerous team throughout that 1/4 final. The Portuguese have the momentum and extra rest...
  • Finally Portugal has one key that I think Spain will struggle with - dangerous wingers. Spain's tikki-takka usually revolves around the center of the park. Iniesta, Xavi, Alonso, Silva, Cesc and Busquets run their little triangles in the center of the park. The width is provided by Alba and Arbeloa bombing up the wings from their fullback positions. Blanc tried to block these runs by adding the likes of Debuchy as added cover. Portugal will fight fire with more fire. With Ronaldo and Nani manning the two wings, the Spanish fullbacks will have to be more cautious with their forays into the offensive third. This will impact the width that Spain needs to make their game dangerous. Without a true striker to make the diagonal runs behind the back 4, Spain relies on their fullbacks to over run a side creating mismatches that allow one of the midfielders to find space behind the defense. If Portugal limits these runs they can keep packing the middle of the park and allow Spain to have possession but not goals. In addition, if the Spanish fullbacks get caught too high up the pitch, look for Nani and Ronaldo to punish them on the counter - look at what Croatia was able to do on their counters. 

  • I am not saying this game will be an easy one for Portugal. Spain remains the best team in the world. But I think that this is the end of the run for La Roja. I had predicted that Spain would fall at this stage and I am sticking with that prediction.

    Portugal 3 - Spain 2

    Sorry Jose!!!

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