ST. PETERSBURG – As Spain’s jubilant players sprinted onto the field to celebrate a penalty-shootout victory at the European Championship, Luis Enrique stood alone and simply pumped his fists.
Amid the tension and rising pressure inside Saint Petersburg Stadium, the Spain coach might have been the calmest person around.
“I’d tried to convey a message that what would be, would be,” Luis Enrique said, revealing what he’d told his team ahead of the 3-1 shootout victory over Switzerland in the quarterfinals on Friday. “I told them to relax ... and to enjoy the moment as much as they could.”
Easier said than done for a team that had missed its last five regulation penalties in matches, two of them at Euro 2020. For a team that had squandered chance after chance in extra time as Switzerland’s energy-sapped players hung on for a 1-1 draw through extra time. For a team that had come into the match as the favorite and had taken an eighth-minute lead, only to see that wiped out by a defensive mistake.
So imagine the relief when Mikel Oyarzabal stepped up to convert the decisive spot kick past goalkeeper Yann Sommer, whose save on Kylian Mbappe's shot in a shootout win over France got Switzerland to the tournament's quarterfinals for the first time.
After seeing the ball hit the back of the net, Oyarzabal headed straight to Spain goalkeeper Unai Simon, who had made two saves in the shootout. They were soon consumed by their teammates as “Y Viva Espana” blasted out from the stadium's loudspeakers.
“When it goes your way,” Luis Enrique said, “it feels very good indeed.”
Of course, the Swiss know that feeling. But unlike against France, when they scored all five of their penalties in the shootout, they failed with three of their four attempts this time. Fabian Schar and Manuel Akanji had shots saved by Simon, while Ruben Vargas fired the ball over the crossbar.
“Penalties are a bit 50-50,” said Switzerland captain Xherdan Shaqiri, who scored his team’s goal in regulation time. “I think we just lacked a little bit of luck today.”
Spain will play Italy in the semifinals on Tuesday at Wembley Stadium in London. The team is two wins away from emulating the country’s golden generation, which captured European titles in 2008 and 2012.
After the wild fluctuations of “Manic Monday,” when Spain and Switzerland won chaotic games in the round of 16 that both needed extra time and featured a combined 14 goals, their quarterfinal match was perhaps unsurprisingly a more labored affair punctuated by big moments.
Among them was a red card in the 78th minute for Switzerland midfielder Remo Freuler, whose studs connected with the ankle of substitute Gerard Moreno in a sliding challenge.
Yet a rearguard effort — requiring a string of diving saves by Sommer and a number of last-ditch blocks by sprawling defenders — kept the Spanish at bay in the extra 30 minutes that were played almost entirely in Switzerland's half. A crowd made up of mostly Russian spectators was fully behind Switzerland, even to the extent of jeering Spain's players when they had the ball.
Moreno, in particular, squandered four chances with poor finishing or the acrobatics of Sommer, though the striker made amends by converting one of Spain’s kicks in the shootout.
The Swiss initially missed the energy and authority of suspended captain Granit Xhaka, whose replacement — Denis Zakaria — had the misfortune of scoring the 10th own-goal of the tournament when he sliced the ball into his own net. Jordi Alba sent in the shot after latching onto a corner from the right that had sailed over everyone’s heads in the area.
A defensive mix-up brought about Shaqiri’s equalizer in the 68th, which came just as Switzerland's players had started to assert themselves.
Aymeric Laporte came across to cover a pass over the top but touched the ball onto the leg of his center back partner, Pau Torres. Freuler pounced on the ball and laid it off to Shaqiri, whose first-time shot crawled into the bottom corner.
Freuler’s red card ensured a penalty shootout was the best ending Switzerland could realistically hope for, and the team just about made it thanks to the misses from Moreno.
Switzerland bowed out in the same stadium where the team was eliminated from the 2018 World Cup. Then, the Swiss lost to Sweden 1-0 in the round of 16.
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