THE 11 SPAINS Vs RONALDO
Having swept past France to reach the Euro 2012 semifinals, Spain can expect a more exacting ordeal on Wednesday when it faces a Portugal team which beat it 4-0 in their last meeting.
Spain has largely held the upper hand against its Iberian rival, losing just nine times in 37 encounters, and it edged Portugal 1-0 in the last 16 en route to its triumph at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
However, Portugal claimed emphatic revenge less than five months later with a four-goal victory in Lisbon that condemned the reigning world and European champion to its heaviest defeat in 47 years.
The teams have changed little since. Nine members of Portugal’s likely starting line-up at Donbass Arena in Donetsk on Wednesday featured in the game, while Spain is expected to start with eight of the same players.
Meanwhile, Spain captain Iker Casillas can become the first player to notch up 100 victories in international football if his team beat Portugal in the Euro semifinal.
To do so, on his 136th appearance for his country, the Real Madrid goalkeeper will have to thwart his club team-mate and Portugal captain Cristiano Ronaldo, who has three goals at the tournament and has been on scintillating form.
Casillas believes former World Player of the Year Ronaldo has still not quite reproduced the form that helped Real win La Liga for the first time in four years last season.
“His season at Madrid was incredible in terms of the way he played, the goals and the records,” the 31-year-old, known in Spain as “Saint Iker” thanks to his miraculous saves, was quoted as saying in Monday's Marca sports daily.
“I don't think that right now he is at his best level,” he added.
Cristiano Ronaldo terrorised the Spanish back line at Estadio da Luz two years ago and would have claimed one of the finest goals of his career had Nani not headed his goal-bound shot over the line from an offside position.
The 27-year-old is not short of scores to settle against a team who can call upon five of his Real Madrid colleagues.
After match-winning performances against the Netherlands and the Czech Republic, he is finally making his mark at a major tournament and Spain’s ability to keep him quiet will be pivotal.
The match should provide an intriguing clash of styles, with Spain likely to dominate possession while Portugal awaits opportunities to spring forward on the counter-attack.
Spain has lost only three times in 47 competitive matches and is closing in on an unprecedented treble of major honours, but Portugal right-back Joao Pereira says his side can take heart from its own recent form.
For the first time at the tournament, Portugal coach Paulo Bento will be obliged to change his starting line-up due to the thigh injury sustained by striker Helder Postiga in Thursday's 1-0 win over the Czech Republic.
Werder Bremen’s Hugo Almeida is set to deputise, while defenders Pepe and Fabio Coentrao both returned to training on Sunday after sitting out Saturday’s session to rest injuries.
Spain reported no new injuries after its victory over France, but coach Vicente del Bosque must decide whether to persevere with Fabregas in the ‘false nine’ role or restore Fernando Torres to his starting XI.
While Spain is gunning to become the first team to win three consecutive major international tournaments, Portugal is aiming to reach a first final since its heartbreaking loss to Greece as host of Euro 2004.
The two sides’ records in semifinals are sharply contrasting. Spain has never been beaten at this stage of an international competition, but Portugal has won only once in five attempts.
Even the great Eusebio succumbed to the country’s semifinal jinx, with a late penalty not enough to prevent Portugal losing 2-1 to England at the 1966 World Cup.