Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates after defeating Czech Republic in their Euro 2012 quarter-final soccer match at the National stadium in Warsaw, June 21, 2012. (Photo : REUTERS/Peter Andrews)
Portugal did not start off the tournament in ideal form. They lost to the Germans and had a sloppy win over Denmark. In their third match against the Dutch, the Portuguese switched into another gear and have looked phenomenal since.
On Wednesday, they have their greatest challenge yet in the Defending World and Euro Champions. In the two teams' last encounter at a major tournament, Spain defeated Portugal en route to winning the World Cup.
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However, there are numerous reasons to believe that Portugal will defeat Spain.
Defense, Defense, Defense
There is the old cliché that defense wins championships, and the bottom line is that Portugal has been tremendous in this department for the last two games. The Dutch controlled play for 15 minutes before the Portuguese proceeded to shut them down and break them apart. Against the intense Czechs, Portugal defended enormously, shutting down all Czech attempts and limiting them to no space and no time.
Spain presents a different task. Spain will not stop running, passing, or looking for new ways to break down opponents' defense. Spain's success comes from outlasting opponents physically and mentally with patience and tact. Portugal lost to Spain in the World Cup, but then defeated them 4-0 in a friendly in 2010. Spain will not score in bunches, so all Portugal needs to do is stand up at the box and give Spain no space to penetrate. The Portuguese showed that they are capable of doing it to the Czechs and Netherlands, who are supposed to play a similar possession, based game as the Spanish.
Additionally, Spain's forward all generally lack size, something Portugal surely has with six foot Ricardo Costa,6'2" Rolando, 6'1" Pepe, and "6'2" Bruno Alves. Spain wins with brains, but definitely not with brawn up front. If Portugal can exert some physicality and tire the Spaniards, who generally shy away from physicality, then they can avoid breakdowns against Spain.
Portugal has only given up four goals in four games at the tournament thus far.
The X-factor in the match. Nani has been noticeable throughout the tournament but has often resorted to trying to win games by himself. If he can play with more discipline and exploit his talents, he will give the Spanish defense, especially Jordi Alba, a lot of trouble. If he is a constant threat on his wing, then defender Sergio Ramos will have to divide his time between Ronaldo and Nani, wearing him down and facilitating the Portuguese offense.
France tried tirelessly and unsuccessfully to push the pace of Spain's game and force them into mistakes. They failed and paid with a 2-0 elimination. Spain will make mistakes and the faster the pace of match, the easier it will be to distract and stress the Spanish players. When Spain makes a mistake, a good counter can almost always lead to a scoring chance, and to the lucky attacker who gets past goalkeeper Iker Casillas, a goal. But this will only happen when teams take advantage of those chances. Portugal plays a fast tempo and as evidenced in their Dutch dismantling, they know how to get a possession team to give up the ball easily with fast tempo. Portugal will run at Spain like crazy and will have far more opportunities than any other team has thus far. Spain can't play at a faster tempo; Portugal not only can, but they have won at faster tempi.
However, the biggest reason for a Portuguese triumph will be...
Who else? Ronaldo has taken over the Euro Cup with his fantastic play and his willing his team to victory in the last two matches. Aside from scoring three goals in that span, CR7 has 29 shots throughout the tournament and has been a menace all over the field. He can score from anywhere and he can also set up plays from everywhere. He is also faster than anyone on the field at any given moment and if he has the ball, there is no real answer for him from the Spanish side. The battle between Gerard Pique/Sergio Ramos and Ronaldo will be the one on which the entire match tips either way. If the Pique/Ramos combo can limit Ronaldo, then Portugal stands no chance. But as Ronaldo has shown time and again against Pique in the Spanish League and as he did in that 2010 friendly, the scale is tipped in Ronaldo's favor.
Disagree? Read the counterargument for a Spanish Victory HERE.