Story by Aaron Bliss
So, after 120 minutes of ball-aching tension, Cristiano Ronaldo lines up, and only kicks himself.
Spain reached a third successive major final on the back of a match in which most would agree they were outplayed during regulation time, but Portugal only had themselves to blame. Huge acclaim should go to coach Paulo Bento, who learnt a lesson from Laurent Blanc’s cowardly failure, and actually pressed and attacked the Spanish from the start of the game. Despite preventing the Spaniards from building up any kind of coherent rhythm throughout most of the 90 minutes, Portugal could not make the breakthrough themselves. With Joao Moutinho having the game of his life in midfield, breaking up play and building moves from box to box, Portugal just needed a cutting edge. Unfortunately, Hugo Almeida’s banjo was missing the whole barn, though he was remarkably good in defensive situations. In a game with only one shot on target, an out-of-character long range effort from Xavi, the most glorious opening came in the dying embers of regulation time, when a slick counter-attack saw Cristiano Ronaldo fed by Raul Meireles, in yards of space on the left-hand corner of the box, but, with the headlines ready to be written, the Real Madrid man did not look up, instead lashing the ball practically out of the stadium.
Portugal had toiled hard to fluster Spain, and it was no surprise that their fatigue told in extra time, with Rui Patricio called on to superbly deny Iniesta and substitute Jesus Navas. Most of the Spanish fans were dumbstruck that Vicente Del Bosque had started with third choice centre-forward Alvaro Negredo, who was anonymous until being hauled off for Fabregas. If Torres seethed, one can only imagine how Fernando Llorente felt, having scored 30 goals for Bilbao yet seeing no action thus far. As extra-time drew to a close, Portugal looked dead on their feet, but there was more drama to come.
Xabi Alonso’s first spot-kick was brilliantly saved by Rui Patricio, but, like England’s shootout, the team that missed first came back to claim glory. The very next penalty from Portugal’s man of the match Moutinho was also well saved, in the opposite corner, by Casillas, though Iniesta, Pepe, and Pique stepped up to score. The crowd held their breath as Bruno Alves, a totem of strength at the back during the game, walked forward a little uneasily. This unease was perhaps then compounded by Nani, racing up to take the ball from him, and remind him that he was actually taker number four. Nani did his business, and still the crowd were a little baffled not to have seen Ronaldo. Up stepped Sergio Ramos, an irritating if charismatic defender, who had previous for blazing penalties over. With the world watching, the Real Madrid star contrived to mimic Andrea Pirlo in dinking a gentle shot down the middle as Patricio leapt to his left. ‘Cojones’, they call that. After the earlier embarrassment, up stepped the indomitable Alves, looking every inch a statuesque Aztec mystic. His effort was mere inches from being perfect, but crashed out via the underside of the crossbar. He took it like a man, with a noble grimace as he trooped back in shame. To Ronaldo’s horror, Fabregas enjoyed a much better relationship with the woodwork, as his shot kissed the inside of the post before sliding into the net, winning the shootout for the Spanish. It appeared that Ronaldo’s hubristic desire to take the ‘decisive’ fifth penalty had come back to haunt him, as he did not even get the chance.