IT’S ALREADY STARTING to dominate all discussion.
The tournament’s ultimate duel; brilliant individual against brilliant team. Yes, on Wednesday night, Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo will take on his regular Barcelona rivals but also his everyday Real Madrid team-mates.
And so intense has the coverage got that some sectors of the Madrid media are already being accused of supporting Portugal rather than Spain.
The Spanish national squad themselves, though, plan nothing so out of ordinary. Indeed, Ronaldo’s Real team-mate, Xabi Alonso, insisted that Spain would not do anything too differently to the 2010 World Cup, when they shuttled the Portuguese out of a game again.
“There’s nothing special planned. We’ll use the same ideas as we have so no more. We know the rivals well. We make one or two small adjustments along the way, but nothing special.”
If Spain aren’t exactly going to alter their formation to account for Ronaldo, though, previous adjustments continued to provide debate. Of course, the fact that the two team members who have been involved in the most contentious changes to the Spanish side – Alonso and Cesc Fabregas – only intensified discussion.
Alonso’s insertion as an extra defensive midfielder in 2010 has been described as slowing the team down, while the same has been said of Cesc’s placement as an extra attacking midfielder instead of a striker.
Alonso insisted, however, that no such talk reaches the inside of the squad.
There is no internal debate. We have faith in the way we play, regardless of which players are on the pitch. We’ll play in the same way but we have a freedom to decide and interpret the style.
“We know how we want to play. We won’t be making changes.”
The Real Madrid midfielder, of course, has had to adjust himself given that he plays a bit further forward for his club.
“I interpret both positions as best as possible. Clearly there are different styles and rhythms between Real Madrid and the national team. Yes, I feel free to approach the opposition box, but I feel comfortable in both positions.”
Fabregas took much the same line.
“I play where I’m asked to play… I want to simply help the team in the best way I can.”
He balked at comparisons and contrasts with Leo Messi in the same false nine role.
“That’s hardly applicable… Messi is the best player in the world.”
Spain, of course, are looking to become the best team in history themselves by winning a third international trophy in a row, but that may be complicated by the fact that – as the French game illustrated – the team are starting to struggle from fatigue and will also have two days less to recover than semi-final opponents Portugal while also travelling from Poland to Kiev.
“These factors are a fact of life,” Alonso said. “Our aim is to recover as soon as possible and be 100% fit despite the external circumstances. We know that no excuses will be accepted.
“As for the travel, the same happens in Madrid and Barcelona. We travel a long way from matches.”
Of course, it was the exact distances involved that ensured only 2,000 Spanish fans went to Donetsk on Saturday, and the players have received some criticism for not properly acknowledging them.
“This is true that we could have expressed more joy, more happiness,” Fabregas conceded. “At the time, it was a hard match. We understand the fans felt a little bit forgotten. I’m sorry for anybody who felt offended. It won’t happen again.”
Something that Spain do want to happen again, though, is the defeat of Portugal from 2010.
“Most of their team is still the same,” Alonso said. “Maybe from an emotional point of view, they are arriving at a peak. We have to be aware of that. They are probably in a good moment having progressed to the semi-final. We know the dangers they have. They know us pretty well. We know them pretty well. So there won’t be many surprises. It will be an intense game for sure.”
“Portugal also concentrate a lot on possession,” Fabregas added. They have two very strong forwards in Nani and Cristiano. Comparisons aside, the focus will be on defending very well against those players.
“We are expecting something similar to the Italian game.
“Italy are a great side. They played a cracking game against England.
Their semi-final will feature two very equal teams. I like the way Germany pass the ball and they counter-attack very well. I expect a vibrant match, and hope to meet one of them in the final.”
Alonso, meanwhile, agreed that the high quality of the four teams in the semi-finals – with no real surprises present for the first time since 2000 – was good for football.
“Most teams are trying to keep the ball, keep control of the games and look for the attacking game. That is the best way to look for victory. The teams that are there deserve to be there. No one takes anything for granted. You have to play each game as a final, as we will do on Wednesday.”
Much more sadly, both players also reflected on the tragic death of Spanish footballer Miki Roque.
“When I first heard the news of his illness, it was a terrible blow,” Alonso said. “Yesterday’s death was a tragedy. I send my best wishes to the family and friends.
“Yes, it was very painful,” Fabregas added. “I didn’t know him personally. He played in the Barcelona B team and Puyol always spoke highly of him as a fantastic person. The deaths of Miki and Manuel Preciado are another reason to try and win this championship. It’s a big motivation.”