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Stoppage Time: Portugal poised to steal Euro spotlight
By Chris Ravita, Soccer Editor
(Sports Network) - On paper, Spain looks like the odds-on favorite to make history this week.
No nation has ever won three successive major tournaments, but the Spanish have the opportunity to do just that by building off their Euro 2008 and 2010 World Cup triumphs with a Euro 2012 title.
Only two teams stand in the way of the reigning European (and world) champions. Spain must get past Portugal in Wednesday's lone semifinal before facing the winner of Thursday's Germany-Italy contest in the grand finale Sunday.
Spain certainly looks the part of a worthy champion. La Roja has not given up a goal in the knockout round of a major tournament since 2006 when it fell to France in a 3-1 loss in the Round of 16.
The phrase "defense wins championships" has never been more evident than in international football competitions.
Dating back to 2004, the only nation to concede a goal in the knockout round of a European Championship or World Cup triumph was Italy in 2006 when Zinedine Zidane netted a penalty kick in the seventh minute of the final.
But Spain's defensive dominance this tournament is misleading. La Roja dominates possession to the point in which its opponent cannot get a sniff of the ball, let alone create consistent scoring opportunities.
Vicente del Bosque's men have limited their opposition to 14 shots on target, second-fewest in the tournament, but the quality of many of those chances has been high. Iker Casillas needed to come up big on several occasions in the final match of the group stage against Croatia, and while his clutch saves on Ivan Rakitic and Ivan Perisic powered Spain to a late win, the fact that he's needed to be relied upon in key situations has to be alarming.
Enter Portugal, a team that ranks fifth in shots on goal this tournament.
Star player Cristiano Ronaldo is finding his form at the right time, having scored Portugal's last three goals in the competition. His brace sparked a come-from-behind win over the Netherlands in the final match of Group B and his 79th-minute strike against the Czech Republic was enough to propel the Portuguese into a semifinal date with the Spanish.
Spain was once labeled the consensus underachiever of the major tournament scene, a tag that has since been transferred to Portugal. The Portuguese have never won a title, coming closest in 2004 when they finish runners-up to Greece in the European Championship.
But much like Spain reversing its fortunes at Euro 2008, Portugal will follow suit and make the switch from bridesmaid to bride at a European competition.
Here is how the remainder of the tournament will unfold:
Portugal 1-0 Spain
This all-Iberian affair won't be pretty, but it doesn't need to be for the victor. Spain's six-man midfield with no true striker will force its outside backs to continue to get forward and join the attack. Portugal will gladly sit back and absorb the passing style of play, and with loads of pace all over the pitch, it will exploit the man out of position and hit Spain on the counter- attack. The in-form Ronaldo, who has become quite familiar with his Spanish counterparts through his time with Real Madrid in La Liga, will provide the killer blow, exorcising his alleged penchant of shrinking in big matches. Spain will have plenty of scoring chances, but its luck will run out as the reigning champions will fail to convert.
Germany 2-1 Italy
The Germans will advance to their second successive Euro final appearance after squeaking by Italy in Thursday's semifinal. The 2008 runners-up will jump out in front through a well-worked goal in the first half, but the Italians will pull one back from a set piece shortly after the break. Germany's high defensive line will force some nervy moments as Italy will look dangerous on the counter-attack, but some clutch saves from Manuel Neuer will keep the score even at a goal apiece. Ultimately, Germany will advance thanks to Mario Gomez or Miroslav Klose after either striker, in typical fashion, poaches a late game-winner, perhaps even in extra time.
Portugal 1-0 Germany
In a rematch of their Group B encounter on June 9, the score will be reversed as Portugal will come out on top this time around. Germany claimed a 1-0 win in their opening match of the group stage thanks to a goal from Gomez 18 minutes from time. Like their first meeting, this Germany-Portugal contest will be very even with both sides creating their fair share of chances. But the Portuguese will break the deadlock just before halftime and hold on to the narrow lead. Ronaldo will play the role of decoy, but Nani will turn scorer as the Manchester United winger will add to his two assists this tournament with a vital goal that hands Portugal its first major trophy.
06/26 14:10:43 ET
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