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EDITOR IN CHIEF- ABDULLAH BIN SALIM AL SHUEILI

Spain snare Nations League semis spot from Portugal

BRAGA, Portugal: Alvaro Morata's late strike snatched Spain a 1-0 Nations League victory over Portugal in Braga on Tuesday and sent them into the semifinals.


La Roja needed to win to finish top of League A Group 2, but struggled on another difficult night for the Euro 2020 semifinalists, until Morata's 88th-minute breakthrough.


Spain have not been able to hit top form in the internationals leading up to the Qatar 2022 World Cup, but this hard-fought victory provides a welcome morale boost.


Portugal had the better of the game but Spain brightened in the final stages, with the introduction of several substitutes, including Nico Williams, who headed across goal for Morata to gleefully turn in at the back post.


"When we had to stand up, we did," Morata told TVE. "If we had lost, it had to be giving everything we had on the pitch, and that's what we did.


"I'll remember the attitude of the team, we fought until the end. And Nico Williams, in his second game for the national team, was key and I put it over the line."


Spain will join Italy, Croatia and the Netherlands in the semis in June 2023, although attention now switches to the fast-approaching World Cup.


Luis Enrique made wholesale changes to the side that suffered Spain's first home defeat since 2018 against Switzerland on Saturday, retaining only four starters.


Morata was brought in to lead the line, while the Austrian coach rotated his entire midfield trio.


Spain still dominated possession, as their game plan demands, but to little effect as Portugal created the more dangerous openings.


Athletic Bilbao goalkeeper Unai Simon made a solid save to deny Ruben Neves and then a brilliant one to keep Liverpool striker Diogo Jota at bay.


With Portuguese confidence increasing, Bruno Fernandes lashed an effort narrowly off-target, celebrated prematurely by swathes of the stadium as the ball appeared to settle in the net.


CHANGES PAY OFF


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 crossfield 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.


"This is a wonderful sport in which winning is the best antidote to any depression or sadness," said Luis Enrique.


"Portugal are a top, top, top team. In the first half I insisted, maybe too much, on having the ball, and we did. It's evident we'd prefer to play the passes in their half.


"(But) the first half was necessary to show that the ball was ours, and in the second we had the sensation that the goal would come. We're in the final four again and it's a great joy." -- AFP


Uefa Nations League results on Tuesday:


League A


Group 2


In Braga, Portugal


Portugal 0 Spain 1 (Morata)


In St Gallen, Switzerland


Switzerland 2 (Freuler 29, Embolo 30) Czech Republic 1 (Schick 45)


League B


Group 1


In Krakow, Poland


Ukraine 0 Scotland 0


In Dublin


Republic of Ireland 3 (Egan 18, Obafemi 52, Brady 90+1) Armenia 2 (Dashyan 71, Spertsyan 73)


Group 2


In Tirana


Albania 1 (Lenjani 35) Iceland 1 (Anderson 90+7)


Group 4


In Solna, Sweden


Sweden 1 (Forsberg 42) Slovenia 1 (Sesko 28)


In Oslo


Norway 0 Serbia 2 (Vlahovic 42, A. Mitrovic 54)


League C


Group 2


In Pristina


Kosovo 5 (Muslija 22, Rrudhani 45+1, Rashani 47, Muriqi 52, 84) Cyprus 1 (Roberge 81)


In Athens


Greece 3 (Pelkas 14, Masouras 55, Mantalos 80) Northern Ireland 1 (Lavery 18)


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