THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

Spain v Portugal, June 27, 7.45pm

icon spainvportugal27 June ~ It is a measure of how far Spain have come since their quarter-final defeat to France at World Cup 2006 that the question occupying the minds of the nation's fans and media is no longer whether they will win but how they will win. That does not mean to say anyone is taking victory against Portugal in tonight's semi-final for granted (there is too much respect for and fear of Cristiano Ronaldo for that to happen), rather that the old uncertainties about La Selección's mental strength and their chronic inability to fulfil potential have been replaced by tactical and stylistic concerns.

It is not so much achieving success but the manner in which it is achieved that is the topic of discussion in Spain. How English football would love to ponder such problems. Two years ago pundits ruminated over the doble pivote formed by Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets, and while some still see the pairing as unnecessarily cautious, talk during Euro 2012 has mostly centred on who should lead the line.

Cesc Fàbregas' deployment as a false number nine has not been entirely convincing, while the fluctuating form of Fernando Torres still occupies column inches, as does the continuing absence of Fernando Llorente, who according to one late-night televised gossip shop is on the edge of depression.

Following Saturday's routine, some would say boring, defeat of France, Vicente del Bosque's selections up front are sure to come under the closer scrutiny again, particularly with Alonso's weekend performance pushing the doble pivote issue firmly to the sidelines, for the time being at least. The pundits and pontificators are trying to second-guess the inscrutable Del Bosque, who has never shown the slightest sign during his tenure of buckling to public or media pressure. Meanwhile the fans, having grown accustomed to success, are in two minds.

Some believe Spain have become boring (over 56 per cent of Marca readers, according to a poll on the paper's website on Monday). A sizeable number of those critics are Real Madrid fans, who equate La Roja's elaborate style with that of Barcelona and lament the supposed lack of passion in the team's play.

My José Mourinho-supporting next-door neighbour is a case in point. Though he will be backing Spain on Wednesday, he has nevertheless confided that he would be delighted to see Ronaldo advance his claims to next year's Ballon d'Or and not overly disappointed if Portugal progress.

While the Spanish team continues to sweep all before them there is less to complain about for others. Spain might not set pulses racing as much as they used to, but in the absence of David Villa and in the face of overtly defensive opponents, their intricate passing patterns are a necessary means to an end.

The near-unanimous view is that the cool pragmatism of the Del Bosque era is a marked improvement on the neuroses of the national side's tear-soaked and not too distant past. While the supporters may yearn for the shackles to come off and the Portuguese to be torn apart, when it comes to choosing between another clinical 1-0 victory and the exciting yet agonising exits Spain once specialised in, there really is no debate. James Calder

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