As UEFA EURO 2012 reaches its climax, the four teams still involved are well aware that, at this stage in the tournament, only the toughest challenges await around the corner. On Wednesday the first semi-final serves up a tantalising encounter between Spain and Portugal that has all the ingredients of a modern classic.
The clash appears to have arrived at just the right time for both sides, who have improved with each passing game in the continental showpiece and boast some of the best players in the world in their respective line-ups.
FIFA.com spoke with two men who will be crucial to La Roja’s plans to nullify the Portuguese threat in Donetsk’s Donbass Arena. The fulcrum of the team, Xavi Hernandez, and one of the cornerstones of its defence, Gerard Pique, shared their thoughts ahead of this week’s all-Iberian date with destiny.
Maturity and quality
It is not unfair to suggest that, of the two rival teams, Spain have the higher expectations to live up to. No team has ever won two UEFA EUROs interspersed by a FIFA World Cup™, and Vicente del Bosque’s charges are just two games away from doing just that.
Having won three out of four matches at the event and expertly negotiated their quarter-final tie with France, who have proved to be tricky opponents in the past, the Spaniards now appear to have history on their side, as they have never lost at the semi-final stage of a major international tournament.
The Spanish camp certainly seems to be brimming with confidence. Pique put this optimism and the team’s recent strong performances down to simple tactics. “Defensively, I think we’ve put in some great work, and further forward we’re managing to maintain possession of the ball," he said. "That’s important because then we just have to grab one goal in order to win our matches.”
Xavi, Pique’s team-mate at Barcelona, preferred to highlight the level of maturity in the Spanish camp, which he feels has been key to their success thus far. “Spain have improved with each game and have shown their competitiveness. We know how to perform in these situations," said the midfielder. "Sometimes we can’t always play well, but the important thing is that even then we remain tough opponents. We all help each other out as a team, and that shows on the pitch.”
The bar could not be set higher for Spain, thanks to their outstanding football over the last few years, which may explain why some of their displays at EURO 2012 have not received such glowing praise. However, Del Bosque’s men have offered glimpses of the quality usually associated with the world and European champions, such as in the first half against France.
Xavi makes no attempt to hide his satisfaction with La Roja’s performance versus Les Bleus. “In the first half, we played really well and completely dominated them," said the vastly experienced playmaker. "It was the best we’ve played in the tournament so far. In the second half, while we may not have been quite as sharp, generally we put in a very mature display, the kind we can be proud of.”
In order to write themselves a new page in the history books, Spain must still overcome two major hurdles. The first comes in the shape of a Portugal side that, due in no small part to the pace and power of Cristiano Ronaldo, has emerged as a serious contender for the trophy. Despite their opening loss to Germany, the Lusitanians have grown in stature as the tournament has gone on.
Pique is keen to emphasise that fear is absent from the Spain dressing room, even with the prospect of facing the Real Madrid superstar looming large: “He’s a very good player and Portugal are a top-quality team, but we've always taken on opponents of that calibre on the path to winning trophies. I think we’re really getting into our stride now, and that this match has come at the best possible time for us.”
Xavi’s assessment of Spain’s semi-final opponents is more detailed and analytical: “They’re a great side. Not just Cristiano, who’s an attacker you constantly need to keep an eye on, of course, but Nani as well and good footballers like Joao Moutinho and Raul Meireles. They're both very skilful and can move the ball around quickly. They’re a tough team and, on top of that, they're very tight at the back very well. It’s going to be tricky.”
To emerge triumphant once more, Pique believes that Spain will have to stick to the core values that have brought them this far. “We’ll need to control the ball and keep hold of possession," said the central defender. "It’ll mean that they’ll have fewer chances, and that we can remain patient until opportunities present themselves. That’s been the key to us picking up results in the past few years.”
The teams have met twice in recent times, with A Selecção das Quinas securing a resounding 4-0 friendly win in November 2010, and Spain edging a Round of 16 match at the FIFA World Cup in South Africa 1-0 a few months earlier.
Pique remains confident about La Roja's chances: “We usually stamp our authority on these matches, playing our own game while keeping things tight at the back," said the Barcelona star. "I think that, defensively speaking, it’s all been working out well for us – we’ve kept a clean sheet in nearly every game [Editor's note: Spain have conceded just once so far, in their 1-1 opening group draw with Italy], and that has given us the confidence to go on and win the tournament.”
Xavi brings the discussion to a close by providing a little insight into his emotional state: “We’re playing some great football as a team and we’re all very excited – including me, of course," he concluded. "I don’t know what the future holds, but I've been feeling really great, and will do everything I can to make sure our run doesn’t end here."