Spain flirted with the end of the road, but Sunday's final in Kyiv now awaits the holders after Cesc Fàbregas sealed a penalty shoot-out win against Portugal at the end of a goalless draw in Donetsk.
It may not have been spectacular, but fascinating, tense and committed it certainly was, Portugal neutralising Spain as few teams have over 120 minutes of football. It was beyond midnight in Ukraine by the time misses from João Moutinho and Bruno Alves allowed Fàbregas to crown victory, but a new day has yet to dawn on the international scene as Spain stand a step away from becoming the first team to win three consecutive major tournaments. Only Germany or Italy can stop them now.
Thoughts before the game turned to Miki Roqué – the Real Betis Balompié defender who died aged 23 from cancer on Sunday – as Spain paid their respects with black armbands. With the former Liverpool FC youngster in their hearts, Vicente del Bosque's side then set about their task, going close inside nine minutes when Álvaro Arbeloa side-footed over as the ball broke to him following Andrés Iniesta's incisive run.
The more compelling play was just about coming from the defending champions, although the decision to start Álvaro Negredo rather than Fàbregas or Fernando Torres was not bringing obvious rewards. Del Bosque had hoped to pose Portugal centre-backs Pepe and Bruno Alves a more physical conundrum, yet a bluntness was taking hold whenever his team moved forward.
The pace of Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani meant Paulo Bento's men posed a latent danger, coiled and ready to spring, and the pair nearly combined when Ronaldo tore down the left and clipped in a cross that Iker Casillas whipped out of circulation.
So much of the pre-game talk had revolved around the Real Madrid CF forward and he drove low and wide just beyond the half-hour, after Iniesta had curled over when released by Xavi Hernández. Spain's 'passing carousel' was not revolving at its smoothest, though, with Portugal pressing them hard, and Del Bosque swapped Negredo for Fàbregas nine minutes after the restart.
Jesús Navas then replaced David Silva after an hour as La Roja sought to end the uncommon experience of being on the back foot. Still, genuine opportunities were quickly draining from the game. Ronaldo was unable to trouble Casillas with a trio of free-kicks before his best chance – the chance to settle the contest in normal time – came in the final minute. Raul Meireles broke through the middle and there, unmarked to his left, was his colleague. With Del Bosque surely fearing a missile into the top corner, Ronaldo sliced high and wide.
That miss took the match into extra time and Rui Patrício made the first notable save of the evening when he sprawled left to deny Iniesta at point-blank range following Jordi Alba's cut-back. The Portugal goalkeeper also had to move quickly to his right to thwart Navas in the second period. The holders were gaining the upper hand at last, and although Patrício saved the first spot kick of the shoot-out from Xabi Alonso, Fàbregas ensured they kept it.
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