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Goalkeeper Iker Casillas, centre, and his Spanish side have kept a clean sheet for the last nine knockout games.
Goalkeeper Iker Casillas, centre, and his Spanish side have kept a clean sheet for the last nine knockout games.

One foundation that is holding up Spain

The midfield of world champions and title holders has been ragged but back last line of defence has been the saviour.

Spain have not been at their scintillating best at Euro 2012 but, ominously for their opponents in Sunday's final, they will enter the game having conceded just one goal in five matches in this tournament.

Italy managed to find the net against the world champions in their opening Group C game, a 1-1 draw in Gdansk, but since then Spain have calmly dealt with the best Ireland, Croatia, France and Portugal could throw at them.

Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal's captain, was left a frustrated and forlorn figure following Wednesday's 4-2 semi-final penalty shootout defeat in Donetsk.

Some thought he might be the man to unlock a Spanish defence featuring his Real Madrid teammates Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos and Alvaro Arbeloa.

The former World Player of the Year sent a low shot whistling past the post in the 31st minute but was otherwise restricted to a couple of free kicks, which he blasted over the bar.

He had one great chance to win the game, in the 90th minute, but he skewed a shot high and wide.

Spain's 0-0 draw with Portugal before the shoot-out means they have kept a clean sheet in their last nine matches in the knockout stages of the European Championship and World Cup. The last team to score against them in a knockout game was France, who won 3-1 in the last 16 stage of the 2006 World Cup.

As coach Vicente del Bosque pointed out, holding an opponent scoreless is a pretty useful foundation on which to win matches.

"We never go out there to defend and we are not a defensive team but we are performing pretty well there," he said.

The victory on Wednesday means Spain join the West Germany team of the 1970s as the only sides to reach three successive finals at European championships and World Cups and they can eclipse the Germans, who lost the 1976 Euro final to Czechoslovakia, with victory in Kiev on Sunday.

As Del Bosque and his squad head to the Ukrainian capital, however, there will be much for them to ponder from a midfield display that was unusually ragged, especially in the first half.

Passes from the normally impeccable Xavi Hernandez, Xabi Alonso, Andres Iniesta and David Silva went astray all too often. Xavi again looked a shadow of the player who has set the standard for a playmaker in recent years.

Del Bosque's decision to throw the centre forward Alvaro Negredo into the fray from the start backfired; he barely contributed before being replaced by Cesc Fabregas in the 54th minute. Spain looked more dangerous as the match wore on, especially in extra time with the nippy Pedro and Jesus Navas on either flank, but it was a generally toothless display in which they managed just five shots on target to Portugal's two.

One thing that will surely please Del Bosque is the mental strength his players showed in the shoot-out, especially after Xabi Alonso's opening kick was saved by Rui Patricio.

Sergio Ramos showed courage to score Spain's third goal with an audacious chip similar to Andrea Pirlo's for Italy against England in their quarter-final shoot-out.

Ramos missed a spot kick as Real Madrid were eliminated by Bayern Munich in the Champions League semi-final in May.

"He said that he noticed the keeper was diving away to one side for all the shots and he chose to mimic Pirlo's effort from the other day," Del Bosque said.

"It seems to be the fashion now and I like it."

The contrast with Portugal's Ronaldo, who also missed against Bayern, was striking, as he was inexplicably held back in the shoot-out until it was too late and Spain were through.

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