Spain lay ghosts to rest with victory
VIENNA (Reuters) - It was not pretty but Spain finally managed to lay to rest the ghosts of their past failures by edging world champions Italy on penalties and clinching a place in the semi-finals of Euro 2008.
Connoisseurs of the game will have been disappointed by the quality of football on show in a dour match at the Ernst Happel stadium but for Spain it was not the manner of their victory but the psychological effects that are so important.
Spain have always been in awe of Italy because of their deeply ingrained winning mentality but this time it was they who showed the greater resilience, an inner belief that they could and would win the match.
Penalties are, as players so often like to say, a lottery, but Spain looked confident they had fortune on their side and would notch their first competitive victory over the Azzurri at a major tournament outside the Olympics.
So often before they had promised much and delivered little, but on Sunday their young, talented side was able to overcome the quarter-final barrier and book their place in the semi-finals for the first time in 24 years.
"It was about time too," said goalkeeper and captain Iker Casillas. "It would have been unbearable to go out again at this stage but this time we got the luck that has always deserted us before."
Striker David Villa, who was successfully closed out of the game by an orderly Italy defence, agreed.
"We had to suffer a lot, but in the end it was worth it," he said. "For some time now history has owed us a favour."
Because of the vagaries of the draw at Euro 2008, Spain will now face Russia in the last four, the same team they beat 4-1 in their opening match at the tournament.
For previous Spain sides there might have been some danger of complacency after such a victory but coach Luis Aragones is already working to ensure his young charges take nothing for granted against their opponents.
"Like all the Spanish camp I'm delighted by this victory," said the 69-year-old Spain coach. "But we've done nothing more than win a small battle."
"It will be a very different game to the one we played in the group," he said. "They've got a physically very fit side and have had an extra day's rest. It will be extremely tough for us.
"Russia are at their peak given the way their season works and they were outstanding against the Dutch in extra time. It will be very difficult because they have a very good side."
After disposing of the world champions, Spain are determined not to let their chance of ending their reputation as big stage chokers pass them by.
"As a team we have matured a lot and we have shown that we are able to compete with anyone," said fullback Joan Capdevila. "We want to give everyone in Spain something to cheer about by getting to that final."
(Editing by Jon Bramley)
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