Casillas' saves put Spain in semis
Spain players celebrate their shoot-out triumph in Vienna
Iker Casillas was the penalty shoot-out hero as Spain held their collective nerve to throw out the record book and claim a UEFA EURO 2008™ semi-final against Russia.
Before tonight Spain had lost three quarter-final penalty shoot-outs on 22 June but they stopped the rot at the Ernst-Happel-Stadion, prevailing 4-2 on spot-kicks after 120 minutes had failed to produce a goal. Although Gianluigi Buffon saved from Daniel Güiza, Casillas denied Daniele De Rossi and Antonio Di Natale, allowing Cesc Fàbregas to step up and send his side through. In truth, Luis Aragonés's team had enjoyed the better of the play on a humid night in Vienna, Marcos Senna coming closest when he was denied by the post in the closing stages of normal time. They continued to press in the additional half-hour, David Silva and Santi Cazorla both firing narrowly wide before Casillas's heroics saw them through to a rematch with a Russia side they defeated 4-1 in the group stage.
The Italy squad had arrived at the Ernst-Happel-Stadion some time after their Spanish counterparts, and for much of the first half Aragonés's men were similarly first to everything. With Xavi Hernández providing the pivot in midfield, Spain bossed the play, caressing the ball one way and then the other – all one-touch passing and quick bursts of activity as they picked at Italy's high defensive line, looking for a chink in the armour. The ploy of Andrés Iniesta switching flanks to create the overlap on the left was too obvious for the wizened Azzurri rearguard, although David Villa's cute back-heel almost forced an opening soon after and it took a timely block to deny Silva.
Italy were struggling to gain a foothold, unable to fill the sizeable void left by suspensions to their usual suppliers of industry and finesse, Gennaro Gattuso and Andrea Pirlo. It was a hole that Fernando Torres, in particular, was keen to exploit as he popped up all over the pitch, drawing Aragonés from his bench to tell him to calm down. Perhaps Aragonés was aware the omens were hardly stacked in his team's favour as they sought their first win against the Azzurri in a competitive fixture, Olympic Games excluded. Midway through the half Massimo Ambrosini gave Spain more to think about but Simone Perrotta was unable to make the most of his arcing cross before another centre just evaded Luca Toni.
With King Juan Carlos in the crowd, it was largely Spain who were rising to the occasion. Villa tested Buffon with a free-kick but it was the waspish Silva who was displaying the most menace. Seven minutes before half-time he fired a low effort past the post after a blocked Torres shot fell his way. He then profited from another fortuitous opening soon after the restart, when the ball cannoned into his path eight metres out. After a clever turn it took a timely intervention from the excellent Giorgio Chiellini to deny Silva. The Azzurri centre-back was immense, and slowly his team-mates began to respond. Just past the hour a long ball caused mayhem in the Spain defence, dropping favourably for substitute Mauro Camoranesi who forced a smothering save from Casillas.
At the other end, with time ebbing away, Senna worked Buffon with a free-kick and then a low shot that bounced awkwardly in front of the goalkeeper, the ball evading his grasp and spinning on to the post before he fell on to it at the second attempt. It was a propitious bounce but there was no luck involved when the Italy No1 dived to keep out Güiza's effort with three minutes remaining, even if play was subsequently called back for handball. Such reactions would prove invaluable in the concluding penalty shoot-out, but, unfortunately for Roberto Donadoni's world champions, they came predominantly from Casillas.