Fabregas penalty brings Spain full circle
DONETSK, Ukraine - Agence France-Presse
Cesc Fabregas of Spain scores the decisive penalty against Portugal's goalkeeper Rui Patricio during the penalty shoot out of the semi final match of the UEFA EURO 2012 between Portugal and Spain in Donetsk, Ukraine, 27 June 2012. EPA photoTwo Cesc Fabregas penalties, four years apart, tell the story of Spain's recent history in the European Championship.
In 2008, in Vienna, it was Fabregas' spot-kick in a 4-2 penalty shoot-out win over world champions Italy that convinced Spain they were finally capable of beating Europe's leading teams.
One week later, they beat Germany to claim their first major honour in 44 years and in just over two years, they were world champions.
"I think we changed our mentality with that game," said Gerard Pique earlier this month.
"Before then, when Spain got to the quarter-finals, we played not to lose. Since then, we play to win." On Wednesday, in Donetsk, it fell to Fabregas once again to apply the coup de grace in a penalty shoot-out, although this time it was Portugal, in the semi-finals.
The Barcelona midfielder's unerring spot-kick, which hit the base of the left-hand post before cannoning into the net, gave Spain another 4-2 shoot-out success, but the context was very different this time.
Where Spain were an emerging force at Euro 2008, they now appear slightly jaded.
They have gone nine knockout matches at major tournaments without conceding a goal, but their performances have become even more laboured than the string of four 1-0 wins that took them to glory at the last World Cup.
As against France in the quarter-finals, and Croatia in the group phase, Spain largely controlled the match against Portugal but were unable to procure genuine sights of goal until extra time.
Apart from a pair of stops to thwart Andres Iniesta and Jesus Navas either side of half-time in the extra period, Portugal goalkeeper Rui Patricio did not have a save of note to make.
"It was tough and it wasn't our best match, because they made it difficult for us," admitted centre-back Sergio Ramos.
"They like to move the ball around and counter-attack, and it was hard going for us." Coach Vicente del Bosque's latest attempt to give Spain more cutting edge saw Alvaro Negredo handed a surprise start, but the Sevilla man was replaced by Fabregas early in the second half without having had a shot in anger.
Fabregas and Fernando Torres have also been tried at the tip of the Spanish attack, but although the former scored in the 1-1 draw with Italy and the latter netted twice against Ireland, neither has convinced Del Bosque they must start.
Fernando Llorente, meanwhile, has yet to play a single minute at the tournament despite having enjoyed his most prolific season to date with Athletic Bilbao.
Although still to secure a starting berth, Fabregas remains an excellent impact substitute, and Del Bosque can also call upon Navas and Pedro Rodriguez, who both injected pace and penetration when they came on against Portugal.
Del Bosque said Spain caused "more problems" with Fabegas, Navas and Pedro on the pitch, but although Fabregas could start in Sunday's final in Kiev, the other two are likely to resume their watching brief on the bench.
Loath to change his starting line-up unduly, Del Bosque appears set to proceed with the formula that brought success in South Africa -- pass, pass, pass, and if that does not work, turn to the bench.
After the match, Spain captain Iker Casillas acknowledged the "criticism" his side have received, and it is true that La Roja are beginning to lose the popular acclaim that accompanied their previous triumphs.
Indeed, the successes at Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup risk being tarnished by association with Spain's rather turgid football at Euro 2012, but with a third consecutive trophy in sight, they may not care.