Spain shed under-achiever tag

When Cesc Fabregas hit the winning penalty strike, Spain had beaten world champs Italy for the first time in 88 years.

updated: June 26, 2008 16:11 IST
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Spain took a big step toward shedding its underachiever reputation - against World Cup champion Italy, no less.

The Spaniards finally survived the quarterfinals in a major tournament and beat the Italians for the first time in 88 years, taking a penalty kick shootout 4-2 Sunday night after a 0-0 draw in the European Championship.

Iker Casillas saved two penalty kicks and Cesc Fabregas scored the winner, sending Spain into a semifinal matchup with Russia, which it beat 4-1 in the opening game of group play.

"We're always talking about not being able to pass the quarterfinals. But now we're in the semifinals," Spain coach Luis Aragones said. "I'm happy for my country and for my players ... and ultimately for myself, because it's my profession and winning is beautiful."

Spain lost shootouts to Belgium at the 1986 World Cup, to England at Euro 1996 and to South Korea at the 2002 World Cup _ all in the quarterfinals. Casillas made sure it didn't happen again.

"We finally had the luck that we have been missing," Casillas said after stopping Daniele De Rossi and Antonio Di Natale. "We deserved this."

The last time Spain made the final four in a major event was the 1984 Euros, losing to France in the final. The last major win over Italy? At the 1920 Olympics.

"We didn't play great football and Italy didn't either. Italy couldn't score on us and we had about three good chances," Aragones said.

"The rhythm of the game was slow. If we had moved the ball with more speed maybe we would have had more chances."

Spain ran its undefeated streak to 20 games and is the only group winner to advance to the semifinals in these Euros. Germany and Turkey play Wednesday in the other semifinal in Basel, Switzerland.

David Villa, Santi Cazorla and Marcos Senna beat Italy's Gianluigi Buffon in the shootout. Fabio Grosso and Mauro Camoranesi connected for Italy, but Casillas was the difference.

"Losing is always bitter, but when you lose on penalties it burns even more," Italy forward Alessandro Del Piero said. "But let's not talk about bad luck. It's not anyone's fault."

Spain created more openings, but neither team performed at anything like its peak. Spain's best opportunity came in the 81st minute, when Buffon dropped a fierce long-range shot by Senna. The ball squirmed out of his hands and rolled back to hit the post before landing softly back in his arms.

David Silva shot inches wide early in extra time.

One close call for Italy came when substitute Camoranesi had a goal-bound shot blocked by the legs of Casillas in the 61st minute. Otherwise, with key midfielders Andrea Pirlo and Gennaro Gattuso suspended, the world champions seemed content to stifle a Spain team that had shown some of the best attacking soccer in the group stages.

"Clearly losing on penalties after working so hard doesn't leave us happy," Italy coach Roberto Donadoni said. "We all spent a lot of energy. You've got to recall those who didn't play tonight. They've got to be the most disappointed, and I'm sorry for them."

One of those who didn't play, Gattuso, wouldn't complain about how Italy's Euros ended.

"We're very bitter, but we still have a lot of pride," he said. "Losing on penalties happens. We won the World Cup on penalties."