Spain seal place in semi-final


Spain 2 France 0:ONE HUNDRED caps, two goals and victory in a competitive match against France for the first time in Spain’s history. Revenge too for the last time they were knocked out of a major tournament, six long years ago. Xabi Alonso was on the losing side that night in Hanover. He led the winning side on Saturday night in Donetsk.

Everything has changed since then: Spain have gone from habitual failures to perpetual winners. And, ultimately, they were comfortable here. France were simply unable to trouble the world and European champions. Alonso helped control much of this game. He decided it too.

He scored a first-half header and a 90th-minute penalty to maintain Spain’s hopes of achieving a unique treble: Euros-World Cup-Euros. Portugal are next. It always looked that way after Spain scored a 19th-minute opener. When Alonso coolly side-footed in a penalty a little over an hour later, victory was secure. For all the concern, Spain progressed. The key was control, achieved with dominance of midfield. Vicente Del Bosque admitted to doubts and resolved them by selecting Cesc Fábregas over Fernando Torres. Laurent Blanc insisted that it was impossible to compete with Spain for possession. His prediction was not far off. He had hoped France would be dangerous when they did get it; that part of the plan did not come together.

Laurent Koscielny came in to replace the suspended Philippe Mexès and there were two right-backs in the French side, with Anthony Réveillère getting his first minutes of the tournament; ahead of him, Mathieu Debuchy returned to the defence from midfield. The plan seemed clear: Garer l’autobus. But France parked it higher than anticipated. Spain were offered a certain space to seek behind the back line.

When Del Bosque complained that the criticism had been exaggerated, he did admit that there were elements of Spain’s performances that had not pleased him. Two words were repeated often: profundidad and verticalidad. He wanted depth to the attacks, principally from the full-backs, and greater cutting edge.

Here, Spain looked for the space behind the defence often and after just five minutes Alonso swung a curling ball over the top for Fábregas, who tumbled in the area, while both full-backs were choosing their runs carefully and often. When Jordi Alba progressed on the left in the 19th minute, they paid dearly.

The move began with seemingly little malicious intent, until an almost imperceptible swivel from Andrés Iniesta’s hips and a dash from Alba changed everything. Suddenly, the pace quickened and France were opened. Spain were in the lead. The ball was moved from right to left, Xavi Hernández rolling a simple pass to Iniesta. He snaked away from his marker and slotted a ball for Alba’s run. Alba got away from Debuchy, stumbling behind him, and his cross to the back post was met by Alonso. His bullet header, headed into the ground was impeccable.

So much for two right-backs. So often, it has taken Spain a long time to get the opener. Now, they had got it early; now France had little choice but to break with their plan. They never managed it. Spain could keep the ball and few keep the ball like Spain. Alonso started superbly: he found Fábregas for the penalty appeal, almost surprised Hugo Lloris from long range and got the opening goal. Iniesta and Fábregas then combined with a typical move, the Barcelona midfielder clipping a first-time ball into Iniesta’s path.

Spain were dominating possession, even if Iker Casillas was forced to make a sharp save from Yohan Cabaye’s free kick.

Early in the second half, Karim Benzema’s quick first-time pass looked for Franck Ribéry but Sergio Ramos closed him down. A moment later the same two players combined after Cabaye had won the ball from Sergio Busquets. Just as there appeared to be a gap to exploit, the final pass was poorly hit. Almost immediately, Ribéry was involved once more, Benzema peeling away, but the pass was mis-hit.

But the French threat was fleeting. Ribery’s cross found Debuchy to head over and there was half an hour remaining. It felt like Spain were no longer in complete control but nor were they ever in trouble. Lloris had to be fast off his line to prevent Fábregas from adding a second. Meanwhile, Pedro and Torres were preparing to come on, offering a more direct, faster threat. As they were given instructions, Samir Nasri and Jérémy Ménez were limbering up. Decisive moments approached, and yet the game in fact drifted away.

Decisive moments became rather dead ones until Pedro was bundled over by Réveillère and Alonso stepped up to send Spain through to the semi-finals.

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