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Spain-Portugal Preview


STATS European Football Writer

(AP) -- LONDON (SE) - With the best four teams in the competition still standing, Euro 2012 begins its grandstand finish in Donetsk, Ukraine, on Wednesday evening when Spain look to move within 90 minutes of history.

La Furia Roja are two games away from becoming the first side to ever win three consecutive major titles, but face a tricky all-Iberian test to reach the final in Kiev.

Spain's 2-0 win over France in the last round made it eight wins on the bounce in knockout stages of tournament football, and remarkably, they have not conceded a single goal in that time. Zinedine Zidane was the last player to score past Spain in a knockout match back at the 2006 World Cup, and another Real Madrid legend will pose a major threat to that clean-sheet record Wednesday.

Cristiano Ronaldo has been one of the stars of the tournament, scoring his side's last three goals, hitting the woodwork four times and inspiring his team to a place in the last four with his 79th-minute header to beat the Czech Republic 1-0 in the quarterfinals.

The Portugal captain knows plenty about his Spanish opponents - having played with and against the majority of them the last three years in La Liga - and will need to get the better of Madrid teammates Alvaro Arbeloa, Sergio Ramos and goalkeeper Iker Casillas, who has not had to the pick the ball out of his net in 299 minutes. Despite recognising the obvious threat of Ronaldo, Xabi Alonso believes Spain will focus more on their own tactics than how to stop his Madrid colleague.

"Portugal have forwards who can cause problems for us and above all the two wingers Cristiano and Nani are superb players," Alonso said. "We know Cristiano perfectly and he has been playing at an incredible level all season at Real Madrid, but the important thing is to focus on ourselves and make sure we are playing at our optimum level.

"Maybe before the game there will be a warmer greeting than usual because he's your club team mate but in the end you are going to be fighting your own corner. Ultimately everyone is fighting for their own goals."

After losing to Germany in their Group B opener, Portugal have consistently impressed. A solid defence anchored by Bruno Alves and Real Madrid's Pepe gives the team a strong base, while the reliable midfield trio will be tasked with shielding those centrebacks against the Spanish and getting the ball forward to the attacking players.

Ronaldo and Nani offer the real quality in the side and will be a particular threat on the break, with Hugo Almeida likely to be in the starting XI to replace injured first-choice forward Helder Postiga.

These two teams met in the last 16 of the 2010 World Cup, with Spain winning 1-0, but Portugal knocked their Iberian neighbours out of the Euros back in 2004. The last meeting between the two was a friendly in November 2010, when a strong Spanish side were thrashed 4-0, and that result has given the Portuguese a great deal of confidence going into the crunch match in Donetsk.

"It will be a 50/50 game," said fullback Joao Pereira. "I do not know if we will watch that match (Portugal's 4-0 win) but it will be a completely different game. That was a friendly match, there was nothing at stake, Spain were very relaxed and slacking. Now it will be harder and I do not think that the match will be that uneven. At the World Cup, it was a very close match and either team could have won.

"Even though we did not get off to a good start at the Euros, we have been improving after working together for a month. I hope we will not make mistakes, because they easily make the most of them. We will have to be careful with their midfielders, who make deadly passes."

After the 1-1 draw with Italy in the opening game of Group C, Spain have dominated their opponents on the way to the semifinals. However, the style of football and the decision to play no recognised centre-forward or wingers against France has drawn some criticism.

The choice for Spain manager Vicente del Bosque against Portugal is between the false-nine of Cesc Fabregas or the more classical option of Fernando Torres up top, while Jesus Navas would be a surprise selection to add some width to the midfield. Whatever the coach decides, midfielder Alonso insists that the team won't change their style.

"Whatever people say I don't think we are going to change," said the 30-year-old. "I am pretty sure that most of the fans are enjoying great football games and great football teams. I think that's great not just for the present but also for the future of this tournament."

The referee for Wednesday's game is Cuneyt Cakir. The Turkish official took charge of his first UEFA club game back in 2003 and was selected for the highest-profile game of his career earlier this year when Barcelona hosted Chelsea in the second leg of the Champions League semifinal.

He refereed two group matches and was the fourth official Sunday when Italy beat England on penalties.

Updated June 25, 2012

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