Team spirit and dash of luck work for Spain
INNSBRUCK (Reuters) - Thanks to their penalty shootout victory over world champions Italy, Spain are the only one of the Euro 2008 group winners to have made it as far as the semi-finals.
In doing so they have also overcome a quarter-final jinx that stretches back 24 years to the 1984 European Championship.
Spain have traditionally been renowned for having players with neat ball-playing skills and heaps of individual talent, but the team has lacked the killer instinct needed to win the big matches.
An improved team spirit, the ability to control a game and a dash of good fortune appear to have made the difference this time round.
They will now face Russia as they bid to reach their first final since finishing as runners-up to France in 1984.
Russia were Spain's first opponents at Euro 2008, but the match was certainly not the stroll the 4-1 scoreline might suggest and they ended up playing some highly effective counter-attack football almost by accident.
Spain opened the scoring with a David Villa strike that came after a first-time pass from well inside their own half, but then found themselves on the rack against the attack-minded Russians who pinned them back in their own area for much of the first quarter.
Just when Guus Hiddink's side looked as though they might equalise, Spain hit them on the break once again, Villa making it 2-0 with another neat strike.
From then on Russia were forced to throw caution to the wind and Spain took full advantage with Villa notching up a hat-trick on the way to an emphatic victory.
The second game against Sweden looked to be heading for a draw after Zlatan Ibrahimovic cancelled out an early strike from Fernando Torres, but Villa took advantage of a momentary loss of concentration in the opposition defence to snatch the win with a fine breakaway goal in stoppage time.
Villa's opportunism provided the basis for two wins that gave Luis Aragones of the luxury of resting 10 of this starting team in the 2-1 comeback win over Greece in the final group match.
Unlike the last World Cup where the players appeared to go off the boil after being rested, this time they retained the necessary edge to go head-to-head with Italy in the quarters.
Although Spain dominated possession and were by far the more ambitious of the two outfits they were unable to break down a resolute Italian defence.
In contrast to previous Spain sides, they retained their focus and headed into extra time and then penalties looking confident of their chances of victory.
Two superb saves from captain Iker Casillas paved the way for the Spanish triumph and Cesc Fabregas finished off with a coolly taken fifth penalty.
Spain have belief both in themselves and in their ability to outplay opponents by starving them of the ball but although they would never like to admit it they have also learned to win ugly.
(Editing by Jon Bramley)
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