Many centuries ago, the Kingdoms of Spain and Portugal, made wealthy by their gold seeking conquistadors, once drew up a world map and divided in half. Such was their influence and power, that each could claim half of known civilized world as their own.
The semifinal of the European championship will see a similar Iberian clash between the world’s best team, i.e. Spain, and one of the world best players, Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal. However no agreement will be reached in this case, as only one of these two teams will gain the right to play the final in Kiev on the 1st of July.
The Spanish are both world champions and defending European championships. They are trying with relative ease so far, to become the first team to win three major titles in a row. This unprecedented dominance comes thanks to a generation of supremely talented players known as Iniesta, Xavi, Xabi Alonso, Busquets, Puyol, Villa, Ramos, raised at either Barcelona or Real Madrid that have brought unprecedented glory to their clubs and country.
In this tournament, veteran coach Vicente Del Bosque has played mostly without a striker, using Fabregas up front, linked with midfielders Silva, Xabi Alonso, Xavi, Busquets, and bringing in Chelsea Torres only if necessary. He has replaced injured captain Puyol, with Pique and Arbeloa in the middle of the defense. Goalie Iker Casillas has been world class so far saving his team against Croatia.
It is a given that the Spanish will dominate the possession of the ball for more than 70% of the time. Nobody has the one touch talent of the Spanish ball handlers. Only the Italians, in the first game of the round robin, pressed the Spanish sufficiently, to challenge for midfield dominance.
The Spanish will play one touch keep away, controlling the tempo, slowly pressing the Portuguese inexorably in their own area, until they create the opportunity to score. It is a credit to them that everybody knows how they play, but almost nobody can figure out how to beat them.
Portugal's unexpected advance to the semifinals is not an accident. The team that had to win the playoff just to get into the European championship has improved with every game, defeating Holland, and then the Czech Republic easily. Coach Bento has built his team on a solid defensive, counter attacking formation. The goalie Rui Patricio never had to make a save against the Czechs. In this game Spain will test his mettle.
Joao Pereira on the right, and Coentrao on the left are capable defenders. In the middle the Portuguese have the tournaments best center defenders, Bruno Alves and Pepe. They have been one of the main keys of the Portuguese success, dominating in the air and impressive on the ground. The Portuguese midfield pales in comparison to Spain, but still have top talent in Chelsea's Meireles, Moutinho, Veloso and Nani.
The speedy Manchester United player especially will have to find the spark to launch Cristiano Ronaldo one on one against a Spanish defender. Therein lies the Portuguese plan, defend with order, and try to isolate the world best player against one Spanish defender, at least two or three times.
Key individual battles to watch will be Fabregas against Pepe, Nani against Ramos, Meireles against Busquets, Veloso against Iniesta, Ronaldo against any of the Spanish defenders, Pique, Arbeloa, Ramos or Jordi Alba. The Portuguese must try to keep high in the field, and not be pressed in their own area like the French.
They must challenge the Spanish on every ball and try to establish their own possession, and look for weakness. Easy to say, very difficult to do. The Spanish play less well when they are behind, than when they are ahead, so not allowing the first goal will be crucial.
The Spanish players know Ronaldo well. Ramos, Pepe, and Casillas are his teammates in Real Madrid. The Barcelona players face him time and again in the Spanish Derby. They won't double team him as it’s not their style. They will try and dominate possession so he only sees the ball 10% of the game. Ronaldo, in great form, will have to fight the entire game for the one ball that will give him a chance on goal.
In the form he is in, given the chance, he will score. The Spanish are favourites to defeat the Portuguese. Cristiano Ronaldo wants to bring his team to the final and show why he should be considered the best player in the world.
A victory in Donetsk over the Spanish team would give him the glory he seeks for himself and for his country. I was lucky to be able to deliver that kind of success and happiness to Argentina in the World Cup in Mexico 1986. Like Ronaldo, I was surrounded by capable tough teammates, who wanted to win more than anything.
No matter how good one player can be, only an amazing team effort will lift Portugal over the Spanish champions of the world.More columns