Iker Casillas during a training session
Donetsk: For Spain it’s more about stopping one man, while for Portugal it will be about containing a whole team when the sides meet in Wednesday’s European Championship semi-final.
While Cristiano Ronaldo holds the keys to Portugal’s chances of taking a step closer to a first major trophy, Spain’s charge towards an unprecedented third straight tournament title is anchored in selfless teamwork.
Spain simply do not need a Ronaldo, Portugal desperately does.
After a difficult start to the tournament, Ronaldo has stepped up when it mattered, scoring three goals in the last two games to move Portugal within touching distance of their first final since Euro 2004, where they lost on home soil to outsider Greece.
This time, Portugal will be very much the outsider at the Donbass Arena in Donetsk.
“We have to be ourselves and not change the way we play just because we’re going to face the reigning World and European champion," Portugal defender Joao Pereira said. “We’re going to play our own game.”
That is more than what France did in last Saturday’s quarter final, when they tried to stifle Spain at the expense of their own ambition, and meekly lost 0-2.
Meek is not a word often associated with Ronaldo, whose 86 league goals in the past two seasons with Real Madrid make him the only player who comes close to rivalling Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi.
Although Portugal have another skillful player in winger Nani, the team are under no illusions how to play: with fast breaks and by getting the ball up to Ronaldo as quickly as possible.
“Our weapons are not a secret,” midfielder Custodio said. “Will this be Portugal’s year? I hope so.”
Portugal beat Spain 4-0 in a friendly match in November, 2010 — Spain’s heaviest defeat since winning the World Cup.
But only victory on Saturday will heal the wounds from Portugal’s ill-tempered 0-1 loss to Spain in the second round of the World Cup two years ago — in which Spain shackled Ronaldo.
Spain will be confident of doing so again, with four of Ronaldo’s teammates likely to be playing — goalkeeper Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Xabi Alonso and Alvaro Arbeloa.
The three Madrid players for Portugal are Ronaldo, Pepe and Fabio Coentrao. “I’ve spoken to (Portugal’s Madrid players) and the three of them look very good,” Alonso said. “They’ve carried over their club form into the tournament.”
Throw in Spain’s five Barcelona players — Andreas Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez, Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets and Cesc Fabregas — and the match has all the elements of being a mini-Clasico.
Whether Pepe can keep his sometimes dangerous tackling under control may prove crucial to Portugal’s chances. The Spanish have dominated possession in every match, but have yet to provide the sparkling football many observers expect.
Asked whether Spain’s suffocating ball-retention and relentless closing down is making them a boring team to watch, Alonso says “that is (the press) opinion. We’re confident in how we play and we’re not going to change our style.
“We’re very confident and secure in how we play,” the midfielder added. “(Coach Vicente del Bosque) gives us a lot of liberty, he has a lot of faith in us, so we will continue this way.”
Meanwhile, Spain captain Casillas can become the first player to notch up 100 victories in international football if his team beat Portugal on Wednesday.