PRIDE INTACT: Bento's boys played above themselves in Euro 2012 and future looks bright
HAVING pushed reigning world and European champions Spain for 120 minutes in their Euro 2012 semi-final, Portugal can reflect on a successful showing in Poland and Ukraine.
Cesc Fabregas' winning penalty gave Spain a 4-2 shootout success in Donetsk on Wednesday that sent Vicente del Bosque's side into the final, but the margins of failure were wafer-thin for beaten Portugal.
Had Cristiano Ronaldo not lifted the ball over the crossbar in the final minute of normal time, had Bruno Alves' fourth Portuguese penalty not hit the bar and bounced back, things could have been very different.
Dogged in defence and menacing on the counter-attack, Portugal proved themselves worthy of a place in the last four and although they failed to reach the final, coach Paulo Bento said there was plenty of cause for optimism.
"All that's left for me is the way that we played and the way we have competed," he said. "Even though we lost the semi-final, that should give us a lot of confidence.
"The country can be proud of the team's efforts. In the 90 minutes (normal match time) we played with a lot of speed and caused Spain a lot of problems.
"That's why I'm proud and all of Portugal can be proud."
Portugal have now won only once in six attempts in major tournament semi-finals -- their last final appearance being their loss to Greece as hosts of Euro 2004 -- but they grew in strength as Euro 2012 progressed.
Unfortunate in their opening 1-0 loss to Germany, in which they twice hit the crossbar, they reacted in stirring fashion to beat Denmark 3-2 through an 87th-minute winner from substitute Silvestre Varela.
It was then that the Cristiano Ronaldo show began.
The 27-year-old produced one of the tournament's outstanding individual performances in the final Group B game against Netherlands, scoring twice to cancel out Rafael van der Vaart's opener and sending Portugal into the last eight.
He was every bit as irresistible in the quarter-final against a stubbornly defensive Czech Republic side, whose resistance was finally pierced by a 79th-minute header from the Portugal captain.
Given Portugal's pre-tournament form -- 0-0 draws with Poland and Macedonia, followed by a 3-1 loss to Turkey -- and the strength of their group, a semi-final showing represents a commendable achievement.
For all the disappointment of the defeat by Spain, the Seleccao have come a long way since the 1-0 loss to Norway in their second Euro 2012 qualifier in September 2010 that cost Carlos Queiroz his job at the helm of the team.
"I think people will be proud of us, for what we achieved here," said centre-back Pepe.
"We are a young group and we will have other opportunities in the future."
There is every reason to expect that the squad will remain largely intact for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Prior to the game against Spain, the average age of Portugal's starting line-up was 26.9, and their key players should all still be in their prime in two years' time -- Ronaldo will be 29, Nani 27, and Pepe 31.
Bento, 43, is under contract until 2014 and he has established a sense of calmness and continuity that bodes well for the World Cup qualifying campaign, which starts with a match away to Luxembourg on Sept 7. AFP