Predictable, tedious, boring. This Spanish team have been branded in a lot of negative ways in recent times but it’s unlikely to trouble them too much if they keep winning major honours…
…and their 2-0 win over France in Donetsk had an inevitability to it that is becoming typical for the reigning European and world champions.
France had also resorted to their recent typecasting as a volatile group of individuals with steady rumours of divisions within the camp surfacing in the aftermath of their 2-0 loss to Sweden in Les Bleus’ final group game and gathering pace in the build up to this quarter-final meeting of two powerhouses, featuring only one team worthy of such a title. Laurent Blanc has been commended for his efforts to unite the squad after their disastrous showing at the World Cup in South Africa two years ago, and France had earned many admirers for a turnaround which reflected in their odds on winning the tournament slashed from 18/1 to half that price between qualification and the big kick-off in Poland.
However Blanc’s decision to change his outlook and start without Samir Nasri and Jeremy Menez, whether based on the internal issues amongst the squad or otherwise, was a negative one, and the employment of Mathieu Debuchy – a defender by any other name – on the right of midfield revealed how wary the French boss was of a Spanish raid down the left.
So it must have been particularly frustrating for Blanc when the opening goal duly arrived from that very source after only 19 minutes when a run from Jordi Alba was well found as Andreas Iniesta somehow wriggled into some space for himself and slid the ball out to the full-back breaking forward at full pelt. Debuchy tried to close the threat down but lost his footing leaving Alba with time and space to pick out a ball toward the back post where Xabi Alonso arrived perfectly on cue, heading back across goal and into the roof of the net via the turf.
Alonso had become the fifth Spaniard to earn 100 caps with this appearance, and joined Germany’s Lukas Podolski, who achieved the same feat in the last series of group games against Denmark, by marking the occasion with a goal. The gameplan had to be torn up by Blanc and France but they failed abjectly in any attempts to force the issue on their opponents in the first half, excluding a worthy effort by Yohan Cabaye from a free-kick which was struck with venom but comfortably dealt with by Iker Casillas nonetheless.
Their only outlet of note came through Franck Ribery who probed constantly for a breakthrough that never looked likely but did result in the best opening of the game for France on the hour when the Bayer Munich schemer did brilliantly on the left side of the area and clipped in a great cross which Debuchy could only head over. Spain heeded the warning and controlled the closing stages while occasionally threatening to extend the advantage, but it took until the final minute for that to happen, and in an unsatisfactory manner befitting a game that never lived up to it’s billing.
Spanish substitute Pedro showed quick feet in the box but Anthony Reveillere’s challenge was a tired one and as the attacker stumbled the referee pointed to the spot. Alonso made the most of his brief spell at the forefront of a team he usually influences from obscurity to dispatch the penalty with ease and send Spain into a semi-final meeting with Portugal. They may be monotonous but winning matches never seems to get tiresome for this exceptional outfit.