After nine years, Spain are back in the semi-finals of a major tournament – and, boy, has it felt like hard work.
A group-stage slog, an extra-time thriller with Croatia and then this, a match against Switzerland that seemed under their control but still required 120 minutes of football and a penalty shoot-out to decide.
Yet here they are: exhausted, written off, but in with a shot of a third European Championship final out of the past four. The passing might not be as slick, the control not as imperious as it once was, but one thing Euro 2020 has given these players is belief. After this latest challenge posed by the Russian summer and the Swiss Sommer, it will only be stronger.
It seemed Spain had found the ideal antidote to any lingering fatigue from the last 16 once Jordi Alba’s volley took a hearty deflection off the studs off Denis Zakaria and flew into the net, a stroke of misfortune for Granit Xhaka’s replacement in midfield that meant Euro 2020 has seen more own goals (10) as the 15 previous editions combined (nine).
It also left Switzerland with a daunting task. Trailing 1-0 after eight minutes is not a great outlook against any team, but especially one that came into the quarter-finals with the highest average possession (73.4 per cent) and the joint-lowest number of shots faced (24). Getting the ball back is hard enough; getting a shot away is damnably difficult.
Yet Switzerland did. They ended the 90 minutes having managed eight attempts on Unai Simon’s goal, as many as Croatia managed in that chaotic 5-3 defeat in the previous round. Two of those were on target, the same number as Spain managed; one ended up in the net, via the composed right foot of Xherdan Shaqiri. The Liverpool man has 51 direct goal involvements in 96 Switzerland matches, the team’s hopes in major finals still carried on those spectacular shoulders.
If Vladimir Petkovic’s side did not really deserve to be trailing on the scoresheet, they certainly didn’t merit being a man down on the pitch. After 77 minutes, they were, Remo Freuler issued a straight red by Michael Oliver for a strong challenge on Gerard Moreno – strong, but not obviously reckless, or out of control, and one in which he cleanly won the ball. But red was the colour it remained, meaning the Atalanta midfielder became the first player at the Euros to assist a goal and be sent off in the same game since Nuno Gomes for Portugal 21 years ago.
2 – After his assist for Xherdan Shaqiri, Remo Freuler is only the second player to be involved in a goal and get a red card in the same game at the European Championship, after Nuno Gomes with Portugal against France at EURO 2000. Contrast. #SUI #EURO2020 pic.twitter.com/TYgNSQzHzL
— OptaJean (@OptaJean) July 2, 2021
It also meant, in extra time, Spain suddenly cut loose. They attempted 11 shots in the first period, one more than they managed in the whole of the first 90 minutes. Gerard Moreno smashed wide from five yards; Yann Sommer flew around the Switzerland goal as though his life depended on it. When it looked as though Gerard might finally best him, Ricardo Rodriguez hurled himself in the way, the block inspiring louder cheers from the Saint Petersburg crowd than perhaps any other moment.
It looked as though Sommer’s save from Rodrigo in the shoot-out might have swung things Switzerland’s way after Sergio Busquets had hit the post, but two Simon stops and Ruben Vargas’ effort that flew into the stand gave Mikel Oyarzabal the chance to send Spain through. This time, the finish was clinical.
So Luis Enrique’s men marched, or rather hobbled, into the semi-finals of the Euros for the first time since winning in 2012. Unfancied before the finals, uninspiring at the start of them, they are still here, still passing and, more than ever, still believing. Tougher footballing tests await but, physically and mentally, they have already gone through the wringer. You won’t scare them now.
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