Spain advanced to the Nations League semi-finals with a 1-0 victory over Portugal in Braga on Tuesday thanks to Alvaro Morata’s late goal.
La Roja needed a win to finish first in League A Group 2, but they struggled on another difficult night for the Euro 2020 semi-finalists until Morata’s 88th-minute goal.
Spain has struggled to find form in the internationals leading up to the Qatar World Cup in 2022, but this hard-fought victory provides a much-needed morale boost.
Portugal had the better of the game until the final stages, when Spain brightened with the introduction of several substitutes, including Nico Williams, who headed across goal for Morata to turn in at the back post.
“We stood up when we had to,” Morata told TVE. “If we had lost, we had to give everything we had on the field, and that’s exactly what we did.”
“I’ll remember the team’s attitude; we fought until the bitter end.” And Nico Williams, who was playing in his second game for the national team, was crucial, and I put it over the line.”
Spain will join Italy, Croatia, and the Netherlands in the semi-finals in June 2023, but the focus now shifts to the upcoming World Cup.
Luis Enrique made wholesale changes to the team that lost to Switzerland at home for the first time since 2018. Only four starters remained.
Morata was brought in to lead the line, with the Asturian manager rotating his entire midfield trio.
Spain continued to dominate possession, as their gameplan requires, but to little effect as Portugal created more dangerous openings.
Unai Simon, the Athletic Bilbao goalkeeper, made a solid save to deny Ruben Neves and then a brilliant save to deny Liverpool striker Diogo Jota.
With Portuguese confidence growing, Bruno Fernandes lashed an effort that was narrowly off-target, prompting swaths of the stadium to celebrate prematurely as the ball appeared to settle in the net.
Spain benefits from changes.
Just as they did against Switzerland, Spain failed to get a single shot on target in the first half, and after Simon made another good save from Cristiano Ronaldo early in the second half, Luis Enrique took action.
The coach sent on Pedri, Gavi and Yeremy Pino to try and give La Roja more inspiration going forward, although it was the hosts who almost broke the deadlock when Dani Carvajal deflected a strike narrowly over his own crossbar.
The changes livened Luis Enrique’s team up and they began to turn the tide, building momentum as the game reached its denouement.
Carvajal launched a cross-field ball into the area, with Williams’ header leaving Morata with the simple task of firing into the empty net to put the runners-up of the last edition of the Nations League back into the final four.
An exasperated Ronaldo was denied by Simon at the death and Fernando Santos’s Portugal left ruing their missed chances and wishing they had killed off Spain when they had the chance.
“We had many chances and Spain few, we are sad, we would have liked to have been in the finals,” said Santos.
“Ronaldo had three or four chances that he would usually score, but he could not. That’s football.”
It was a disappointing end to a good run for Portugal, while Spain experienced the opposite sensation.
After defeat by Switzerland and frustrating draws with Portugal and the Czech Republic in June, Morata’s late winner provided relief for La Roja.
“Winning in this sport is the best antidote to any depression or sadness,” said Luis Enrique.
“Portugal is an outstanding team. I insisted, perhaps too much, on having the ball in the first half, and we did. We obviously prefer to play the passes in their half.
“[But] the first half was necessary to demonstrate that the ball was ours, and the second half gave us the impression that the goal would come.” We’re back in the final four, which is a great joy.”