Kick-off: Tuesday, 29th June – 7:30pm
Stadium: Green Point Stadium, Cape Town
Referee: Hector Baldassi (ARG)
Here will be a contrast in styles if the group stage matches are anything to go by. Firstly you have the attack minded composure of Spain, and secondly you have the defensive and cautious mindset of Portugal. After their shock defeat in their opening match against Switzerland, Spain still had enough in the tank to go on and win Group H ahead of Chile. Nothing was certain on the final day of group matches, but Spain gained an early advantage over Chile in their match, despite looking decidedly edgy and nervous. They were helped out when Chile were reduced to ten men after a dubious yellow card given to Marco Estrada for supposedly fouling Fernando Torres. While there was no contact, with Torres tripping over himself, it was probably justified for a rash tackle Estrada had made a few moments earlier. The red card and a wonder goal by Spain’s leading marksman David Villa were the final nails in the coffin of Chile’s hopes of beating Spain to the top of the Group. Spain have done what was expected of them, but Spain have not done it in as much of a convincing style as expected. They created enough chances to bury Honduras out of sight, but only managed two. Then, despite going two nil up against ten man Chile, Spain could not press home and advantage, instead conceding a goal which kept Chile in the match all the way until the 90th minute. There are fears that Spain, who have always failed on the big stage, will crack under the weight of expectancy. Winning the European Championships is completely different to winning the World Cup. Pressure is the one thing that could undo them.
Maybe the defeat in the first match will have made them a bit stronger though, as quality teams rarely suffer two bad upsets in a tournament. In the seven matches it takes to win the World Cup, that kind of form is not going to get you to the Final. Maybe it was the tonic that Spain needed to bury any over confidence that they would have been carrying into the tournament as outright favourites. Coach Vicente Del Bosque said that facing Portugal was no real consolation for him, as he believes Portugal are a real danger team. Not only is there the threat from Cristiano Ronaldo, but as Portugal showed against Brazil, they can play well on the counter attack. As long as David Villa is looking confident and strong up front, Spain will have a chance. Liverpool’s Fernando Torres does not look on his game at all, and it will not be much a surprise if he starts from the bench against Portugal. As Spain welcomed back Andres Iniesta, the benefactor of a rash Chilean goalkeeping error to put the Spaniards ahead, they are strong enough tactically and in quality to leave Torres on the sidelines. Spain will need to go with their best players, and Torres is not proving to be one of them. When you can bring on the quality of Cesc Fabregas, it’s really not that much bother. Xabi Alonso is expected to be fit enough to play after suffering a sprained ankle in the Chile match. He soldiered on for three quarters of the match, and despite early fears, should have fully recovered in time. Del Bosque has options under his belt, with a wealth of quality on the bench. Spain simply need to make sure that they do not beat themselves, and while they will control much of the game against Portugal, they need to display that calm passing patience.
Portugal have not been beaten in 19 games now under coach Carlos Queiroz. Portugal switched formation for the Brazil match, simply deciding to go with five in the middle to snuff out the threat from the Brazilians in that area. While it worked, it also killed the game as a spectacle, and gave Portugal their second dour 0-0 draw in the group, after opening their World Cup 2010 account with the same scoreline against the Ivory Coast. Portugal are not a very positive side, which is an odd thing to say after they scored seven against North Korea, but it is true. They are a very strong side at the back though, and while they are no way able to compete in terms of passing ability and possession with Spain, it is more than likely they will set out with a cautious approach, knowing that they will be second in quality to the European Champions. They will hope to counter quickly and get the ball to Cristiano Ronaldo as much as possible when they do break. Apart from Ronaldo and Raul Meireles, Portugal have not shown much attacking quality at all. They could not compete with Brazil and so simply suffocated the game in midfield from the off. That is what they will probably do against Spain as well, which is fair enough if it represents their best chance of winning a game.
Spain and Brazil are the best passing teams in the tournament without hesitation or doubt. Portugal simply do not have the talent in the middle of the pitch, nor the confidence to get their foot on the ball and control the match against Spain, so Queiroz must come up with alternative means. How well Portugal perform as a team falls on the shoulders of Ronaldo, as he does carry them, even if it against his own wishes. If Spain can negate his threat, then Portugal, on the evidence of how they have played against the Ivory Coast and Brazil, will be devoid of attacking ideas. Despite their long unbeaten run, which is to the credit of their defensive style, they do not look a particularly confident side who believe in themselves. But if Spain are edgier than they have been because of their defeat against Switzerland, it may only take just that second of brilliance from Cristiano Ronaldo to swing the game in Portugal’s favour. Because of the way Portugal play, it could very well turn out to be an even match, with Portugal creating their chances on the break, and Spain relying on their passing and getting the ball out wide to break the Portuguese down.
While Ronaldo will, and basically has to carry the main threat to Spain, there is still the feeling that Spain are two goals better than the Portuguese. Portugal, while very tight at the back are a hard side to break down, are not heavy scorers themselves. If Spain get their noses in front, the Portuguese could crumble if they have to start pressing forward and giving Spain more space. Spain are not on top of their game just yet, but are heading in the right direction, with the promise of more to come from them. They should have enough quality to push on towards the quarter finals, where they will meet the winners of Paraguay v Japan.