Two goals scored by Xabi Alonso on his 100th appearance for his country, one thanks to a great measured pass from Jordi Alba and the other from a penalty for a foul on Pedro, were enough to take the Spanish national team through to the semi-finals of Euro 2012 and at the same time break, once and for all, the spell that France usually put on them. And so they overcame the French side in an scrappier game you would expect from two world champions.
The truth is that Spain were always the better team in a game without much tempo. But they imposed their quality and touch, just doing enough, against a rather ‘grey’ French team. There was a lot of speculation about the team selection of both squads right up to kick off. In Spain they were wondering whether Vicente Del Bosque would opt for Fernando Torres or Fabregas, whilst inFrance the subject was tactical. Would they just defend or would they spring a surprise and attack? The questions were answered when Cesc was named in the starting eleven and Blanc set out his stall in the first few minutes when his team played very, very defensive. The selection of Reveillere at full back and Debuchy, also a defender, on the right of midfield in a 1-4-1-4-1 was all that was needed to show their intentions along with a player like Malouda in place of Nasri in midfield.
Spain, with their classic 1-4-3-3, and Fabregas as a ‘false’ striker with a lot of interchange of positions between Alonso, Busquets and Xavi Hernandez and doing what everyone was expecting: keeping possession and having the ball for long periods. With possession figures of 62% to 38%, the Spanish dominated the game, although without much tempo, or much pace in ball circulation, but, as usual, without losing it and without having any trouble defensively. As for the French, they tried to prevent Jordi Alba getting forward on the wing with Debuchy making a fifth defender and, on occasions, even Ribery doing a similar job on the other side against Alvaro Arbeloa.
Reveillere left his position to close Iniesta between lines when he could as the game developed and France were intento n stopping Spain but this left them without teeth in attack. With this shape of both teams it was matter of time until Del Bosque’s men had a chance to score. And we didn’t have to wait long, when in the 19th minute a great piece of play by Jordi Alba, who got to the goal line, crossed for Xabi Alonso to put a good header in the net to open the scoring.
The pace of the game was slow from both teams and Spain couldn’t create chances so there was little of note. And half time came with a close scoreline but with nearly double the passes from Spain (324) to France (165) which only confirrned what we had seen on the pitch.
More of the same
As there were no changes by either side, and the shapes were similar to the first half, we were sentenced to a similar pattern to what had gone before. It was down to France to do something and they did in the 53rd minute when they regained the ball and made a quick counter attack. The same thing happened a minute later and in the 59th minute, Debuchy had a headed chance but it caused no problem.
Blanc’s team began to get more men forward and the bench brought on Menez and Nasri to help matters. Del Bosque responded by bringing on Pedro for Silva and just a few minutes later Torres for Cesc, trying to exploit the spaces that would be surely left behind the ‘blue’ defence.
The French changed to a 1-4-2-3-1 and in the 70th minute they regained again and counter attacked dangerously through Ribery. Torres and Pedro were looking to get behind the defence but without much effect and the French coach played his last card bringing on Giroud for M’Vila and played with two clear strikers.
Santi Cazorla came on for Andres Iniesta and the game went in to its final throes. Because the Malaga player found Pedro in the box and he got away from Rami cleverly but was brought down by Reveillere for a clear penalty. It was up to Xabi Alonso to put it away, giving him a second goal on his 100th cap and Spain went through to a semi-final against Portugal and France go home. The spell had been broken and the French were beaten at last in serious competition.