Spain prevails in lackluster match

After two hours of goalless soccer, Spain defeated Portugal today 4-2 on penalty kicks to advance to the finals of Euro 2012. The match was quite disappointing. I never imagined that two teams this good could produce such a poor contest.

Portugal deployed superstar Ronaldo in basically a free lance attacking position, apparently not asking him to do much defensively. But Spain gained little advantage from this decision because, fearful of Ronaldo, their right-back Arbeloa rarely joined in the attack as he did so effectively against France. So Ronaldo was contained, but Spain lost an attacking option.

Spain decided to start a true center forward instead of six midfielders. However, Negredo, the center forward selected was largely ineffective. Spain replaced him with a sixth midfielder, Fabregas, after 53 minutes. Unfortunately, Spain didn’t improve during the next 37.

Portugal deserves considerable credit for Spain’s attacking woes. They pressed Spain’s backs, forcing them to kick the ball long far more often than normal. This, in turn, meant that Spain had less possession than normal (about 57 percent of it on the night) and spent less time in their short passing game. But even when they were able to set up, too many passes went astray.

Spain finally came to life in the 30 minute overtime period, when the tired Portuguese did less pressing. Spain attacked in wave after wave, mostly down the left flank through Jordi Alba, the great Iniesta, and substitute Pedro. Spain must have figured that Nani was too tired vigorously to defend on that flank, and too tired to punish Spain on the counter-attack. That’s how it looked to me. Unfortunately, no one was able to finish off Spain’s late-match attacks.

The penalty shoot-out will long be remembered for the fact that Ronaldo, generally considered the best attacking player in Europe, didn’t take any of the four shots for Portugal. A shoot-out works this way: the team that has scored the most after five rounds wins. If a team builds an insurmountable lead prior to the completion of five full rounds, as happened today, it wins. If the teams are tied after five rounds, there are as many additional rounds as it take for one side to score and the other side to miss.

This means that there are only three guaranteed rounds (a team might have an insurmountable 3-0 by that point). Accordingly, it seems to me that a team should always use its best penalty takers in the first three rounds; otherwise it risks not being able to use them at all. The fourth best penalty taker should be used for the fourth kick, and so forth.

Portugal decided to save Ronaldo for the fifth kick. But unlike the seventh game of the World Series, the fifth penalty kick isn’t necessarily decisive if it occurs. A team can succeed in the fifth round and still lose in a later round. Or, though less likely, a team can fail in the fifth round and still win. Thus, there is no point in saving a top penalty taker for a round that may not come to pass.

In today’s match, however, not using Ronaldo probably didn’t cost Portugal. If we assume that Ronaldo would have made his kick (and he has missed a few big penalties in his time) and that the two who missed (in the first and fourth rounds) would also have missed if the order had been different, then Portugal ends up with three successes in five attempts and still loses 4-3.

As I see it, then, the Portuguese manager, Paulo Bento, erred by not using Ronaldo, but it probably didn’t affect the outcome of this particular match.

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