DONESTK, UKRAINE – The Euros continued their turn for the worse Wednesday night, as Spain and Portugal played out a dreadful match that resulted in the second straight scoreless draw of the tournament.
Cesc Fabregas would net the winner in the penalty shootout , pinging his shot off the post to beat Portugal goalkeeper Rui Patricio. The damage, however, had already been done.
Simply put, this match was another slog that adds more fuel to the argument that national teams and their tournaments can no longer keep pace with the club game.
Both teams' flaws were on full display. Spain could not get its vaunted passing game going and were impotent in attack. Portugal showed how deeply it relies on Cristiano Ronaldo - and how far off they are when he has a bad game, as he did Wednesday.
After the last game Portugal played, Arsene Wenger's verdict to me was succinct; it was poor, it was slow and by the numbers, the players were not covering enough ground. Wenger estimated that there were 15 fewer box-to-box runs than in a Premier League match per team. He did allow, with a smile, that just because a game is slower that it isn't any easier to win.
His wisdom was borne out in Donetsk. This game was slower, and was no easier for either team to win. It was not a night of action and neither Iker Casillas, nor Rui Patricio had anything special in normal time. Despite the big occasion, this was another fizzle.
There were flashes early on, hints that this could be a better game. Spain were clearly uncomfortable when Ronaldo had the ball at his feet, but they swiftly countered that by simply shutting him down. Tightly marked by the Spanish defenders, Ronaldo got free only once in the match, then wasted that second half chance off a 4-on-2 counter attack. Ronaldo had a couple of inviting free kicks, but could not keep either of them from flying over Iker Casillas.
Portugal was just as dismissive, rarely allowing Spain the time or space to create anything in the penalty area. As Italy had done in the opening group game, Portugal tried to take the match to Spain in the first half, but they lost that script after the interval and the pendulum slowly swung the other way.
Spain, which again played much of the night without a recognized striker, struggled to achieve the pace of play needed to open the Portuguese, for whom Fabio Coentrao was outstanding at the back. When the defending champions did make an opening, the Portuguese backs closed so quickly that an actual shot never materialized.
With the play confined to midfield and hardly expansive, what else could we expect? Spain's overlapping Jordi Alba was as good as anyone they had to offer on attack, but neither Ronaldo nor Nani could operate effectively out wide for Portugal. Match referee, Cuneyt Cakir, surely did not help the flow and momentum of the game, as he dealt out nine cards with a smile. The players were not thrilled with Cakir to say the least.
Both teams had chances to win it. Iniesta should have scored in extra time only to be denied brilliantly by Rui Patricio. Ironically, when Fabregas scored the game-winning spot kick, Cristiano Ronaldo was left on an island; a man who never got to take a penalty in the shootout as he was being held for the last of the five kicks.
In the end, Spain stretched its record European shutout streak to 429 minutes and again grounded out a victory. They now have a chance to make history by becoming the first team ever to pull off a Euro-World Cup-Euro treble. That's nice. Nonetheless, most neutrals will still be left wishing that they had seen a finer, faster and more entertaining game.
Frankly, that is what they get with the club game. It has been obvious for some time now that the Champions League , the Clasico(s) and the Premier League are unmatched for thrills. But some of us, naively, hoped that after a near-flawless group stage in this tournament, that we might see the national team game striking back. Instead, we're getting a harsh lesson in what is wrong with it at the highest level.
Moreover, one of the central premises for this entire tournament was undermined. The Donbass Arena had large patches of empty seats for a major European game in a bold rebuke to UEFA's aim of growing the game. UEFA and Ukraine share blame equally: UEFA priced the ordinary fan out at the gate with outrageous ticket costs. Ukraine's tourist industry made things worse, allowing profiteering on all aspects of the tournament.
One wonders why they were charging so much and for what. After all, Ukrainians will see a better game when Shakthar takes on an Arsenal or Lille side, and for far less money too. This should worry the national associations. If it doesn't, they are very foolish indeed.
On Thursday night, three-time champs Germany battle Italy in a bitter grudge match. Italy eliminated the 2006 World Cup hosts out of their own party, and Germany is thought to be the better side this time around. The Germans have never been able to dig a win against Italy in either a World Cup or European Championship game.
Fans will surely be hoping for more action than they received Wednesday night.