Cristiano Ronaldo will remember this night as the one on which he saved himself for the last penalty in the shootout, and never got to take it. A bizarre decision by the Portugal captain will give him plenty of reason for reflection as he considers his failure to achieve his aim of becoming the star of Euro 2012. Now this merely becomes the fifth major tournament on which he has failed to make an impact commensurate with his self-esteem.

Spain deserved their victory for the way, after an uncertain start to the evening, they attacked the game with ever-increasing intensity. Despite having had 48 hours' less rest since their quarter-final than Portugal, they raised the tempo significantly in extra time and were unlucky not to convert at least one of several chances in open play.

But the authorities really should find a way of preventing these two teams from meeting in major tournaments. If this match, despite numerous clashes and tumbles, had a slightly more elevated tone than the thoroughly nasty encounter between the Iberian neighbours at the last World Cup, then it never seemed likely to live up to the promise inherent in the presence on the pitch of some of the great performers of the modern game.

A curious selectorial decision seemed to hinder Spain from hitting their stride throughout the opening 45 minutes, while for Portugal, Ronaldo flickered and glistened but failed to find the killing touch.

So are Spain really killing football? A large section of the below-capacity crowd in the Donbass Arena seemed to think so, whistling the men in blood-red every time they had the temerity to construct a move involving more than three or four passes – which, to Vicente del Bosque's men, represents no more than a preface to the narrative of one of their attacks.

It is a ridiculous question, of course, but one that has managed to provoke football's most interesting philosophical debate in years. If, of course, you think that football is something that should have a philosophy, or even debates.

There is subtlety to the argument that a team of artists, setting out to win through pure creativity, can be as a negative force in the game. By setting out to monopolise possession of the ball, and achieving an unprecedented degree of success, Spain's world champions could be seen to be squeezing the life out of the idea of football as a competitive endeavour.

There is also the question of the texture of their play, which cannot be separated from their near-monopoly of possession but in some ways adds an even more powerful element to the complaints of their critics. There is a soft, frictionless quality to the style known as tiki-taka which makes it feel as though Spain are playing in carpet slippers and which robs the game of the explosive, percussive element that has always been a part of the game.

They are also the most statistics-friendly team of all time, and it is hard to know which came first: their dominance or the current obsession with the sort of research that tells us they played 66 through-balls in their first four matches of the tournament, 43 more than any other team. At half-time came the news that their pass-completion rate was 85% lower than they had managed in any of their previous matches in the tournament, but you didn't need a nerd with a calculator and a Twitter account watching the game on telly at home in Potters Bar to tell you that. Portugal were pushing the defending champions into unaccustomed untidiness and uncertainty.

This was also a night when Fernando Torres appeared to drop a little further down the pecking order of international football. He sat on the bench as Del Bosque picked another "true nine": Alvaro Negredo, the big 26-year-old Sevilla striker, to replace his "false nine", Cesc Fábregas. It was not until Fábregas came on in the second half, eventually to be joined by Jesús Navas and Pedro Rodríguez, that Spain started to play in the way they can.

Portugal had started by trying to get their opponents on to the back foot, as Italy did in Spain's opening group game. But as Ronaldo blazed a succession of free kicks over the bar or into the wall, they found themselves unable to put an end to the defending champions' extraordinary run of eight matches in the finals of the European Championships without conceding a goal.

The substitutions brought some of the colour back into Spain's cheeks. Their interplay rediscovered its rhythm and its angles, although Portugal's chasing and harrying never made it easy and meant that the contest was studded with abrasive challenges.

If it was a disappointing match for the neutral, with a collection of fine players largely frustrated in their efforts to make their mark on the night, then we could perhaps blame the importance of the occasion, or the over-familiarity of the two sides. Too much of a private squabble, in fact, with an increasing amount of work for the referee as the challenges became later and wilder.

But the only thing Spain killed was Portugal's hope of reaching the final of the European Championship for the first time since 2004, when they lost at home to Greece. Now Del Bosque's players will have the advantage of an extra day's rest over their opponents in Kiev on Sunday.