Spain 2 - 0 France: Midfielder Alonso at the double to set up all-Iberian semi-final with Portugal
For all the beauty of their football there is something extraordinarily efficient about Spain.
Alonso 19, 90 pen
Referee: N Rizzoli (Italy). Attendance: 47,000
For the seventh major championship knockout game in a row they won without conceding and for a long time it appeared that they would win a sixth successive knockout game 1-0. Their passing, possession-based philosophy has morphed form the thrills of Austria-Switzerland in 2008 to something less thrilling but perhaps even more effective. Arsene Wenger spoke of Barcelona’s style at times as being about “sterile domination” and perhaps it is, but then there is something sterile about perfection.
Their quest to become the first side to win a third major championship in a row drives on and they face Portugal in Wednesday’s semi-final.
Spain, of course, are some way short of perfection, but the ideal is a to generate a game without risk, to pass the opposition to death by keeping the ball away from them, wearing them down with passing. The first goal, headed home by Xabi Alonso after 19 minutes, was a work of art, but the second, stroked in from the penalty spot in the final minute by the same player was the result of that process of attrition.
This was a performance of immense control.
MAN OF THE MATCH Xabi Alonso (Spain)
Not only scored both goals but controlled midfield.
TALKING POINT Strikerlessness: much criticised, but it offers Spain control.
Laurent Blanc as good as confirmed the reports of dressing-room unrest by leaving out Samir Nasri, who supposedly clashed with Alou Diarra when the captain accused him of neglecting his defensive responsibilities in the defeat to Sweden. That meant Mathieu Debuchy, more usually a right-back, playing on the right-wing, with Jeremie Reveillere coming in at right-back.
Despite essentially having two full-backs on that side, though, it was from the Spanish left that the opening goal came. It began with Sergio Busquets in the centre-circle feeding Xavi, who strolled forward and slipped a pass to Andres Iniesta. He shaped to run with it but delayed just enough to feed the overlapping left-back Jordi Alba who shook off Debuchy and sent a glorious cross to the back post where Xabi Alonso, winning his 100th cap, sent a firm header back across goal and past Hugo Lloris.
Having dismissed the criticism of his side following their 1-0 win over Croatia in the final group game, Vicente Del Bosque reasserted the principle of possession above all else by leaving out Fernando Torres and again starting without a recognised striker, Cesc Fabregas operating as the false nine. The Spain coach has spoken repeatedly in the tournament about “controlling” games and the domination of possession allows his side to do that. It’s an oddly risk-averse strategy for such a proactive way of playing but in a sense follows the Dutch philosophy that underpins tiki-taka. The third of Ajax’s three successive European Cup wins came in 1973 when they beat Juventus 1-0 in the final: then they took the lead through Jonny Rep after four minutes and proceeded to keep the ball for the bulk of the remaining 86, almost taunting the Italians with their domination (when the Netherlands tried something similar after an early goal against West Germany in the World Cup final a year later, of course, they were undone and the Total Footballing flame passed eastwards across the border).
With Torres omitted again, his role has effectively become that of the impact-substitute, coming on midway through the second half to stretch an opponent with his pace.
This, though, was probably less about control than any previous Spain performance in the group stage. Both full-backs got forward far more than against either Italy or Croatia and there was a greater sense of zest and invention about them. Del Bosque’s one concession to the doubters had been an acknowledgement that his side lacked profundidad – literally “depth”, in the sense of runners from deep. It was precisely that – players running onto the ball, receiving it on the move so they are already at pace when they hit the defensive line – that Barcelona lacked in the second leg of their Champions League semi-final against Chelsea. It’s the attribute that’s essential if possession-based sides are going to break down teams that set up against them with massed ranks of defenders.
Having controlled the first half almost absolutely – one free-kick from Yohan Cabaye that Iker Casillas flicked over represented France’s only chance – Spain rather lost the initiative in the second.
Karim Benzema, the only striker on the pitch at the start of the game, had had 17 shots in the group stage without scoring, but it was his movement that presented the biggest threat to Spain.
Clear opportunities were limited but there was always the sense that Spain, having space to attack for the first time in the tournament, might strike on the break. Lloris had to charge to the very limits of his box to thwart Fabregas and twice crosses that seemed destined for unmarked forwards were cut out by Adil Rami at the near post.
In the end France did succumb, Pedro tumbling under the challenge of Reveillere as he burst into the box. The game was already as good as over, but Xabi Alonso made absolutely sure, firing his penalty to the left as Lloris dived right. Once again, Spain prevailed, their control threatened only fleetingly.
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Saturday 25 May 2013
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