23 June 2012

Spain 2-0 France

Alonso 19' 90+1' (pen)

I've never seen a side as comfortably in control with a one-goal lead as this Spanish side.

Compare today with yesterday's quarterfinal. No matter how dominant Germany were, they still conceded an unlikely equalizer and had to furiously rally in the final 30 minutes. That never, ever, ever looked likely today. And France is – or, at least, should be – a far better side than the Greeks.

Not counting Ireland – because, honestly – it was the first first-half goal Spain have scored in a major tournament since beating Chile in the last group stage game of the 2010 World Cup. Goals against Croatia, Italy, Holland, Germany, Paraguay, and Portugal all came in the second half, all after the hour mark, after Spain's death by a billion cuts finally broke down resilient opposition.

Reverting to the Fàbregas-as-false-nine system deployed against Italy, they started with far more impetus today, and should have won a penalty within six minutes. But the referee waved complaints away after Fàbregas was brought down trying to reach Alonso's ball over the top. After 13 more minutes of typical pokes and jabs, Iniesta charged down the left and fed Alba, sprinting around Debuchy and delivering a perfect cross for Alonso, unfathomably left open by Malouda's refusal to track back. So much for Laurent Blanc's use of two right backs to protect that flank.

It was fitting that Alonso was the goal-scorer given his dominance today, the Spanish player with the most passes, most attacking third passes, most shots (all three of the Spanish shots on target), and joint-most tackles and interceptions. And both goals. Surprisingly, after today's strikes, he's now joint-second top scorer for Spain under Del Bosque, tied with Silva behind just Villa, with 14 goals since August 2008.

The early goal allowed Spain to swallow France like an anaconda with a mouse, tauntingly squeezing the life out of it before devouring it whole. Once again, Spain seemingly just *knew* they could hold what they had, taking only eight shots following Alonso's opener after five in the first 19 minutes. Spain had 66% possession against Italy, 76% against Ireland, and 72% against Croatia, but just – "just" – 60% today. Which is still more of the ball than they had in five of their seven World Cup games two years ago.

That France were dismal in the attacking third didn't hurt Spain's chances either.

Set up in such a reactive formation, France were never truly able to respond after going behind so soon. The French were limited to free kicks in the first half: the first ballooned by Benzema, the second from Cabaye on-target but not hard enough to trouble Casillas. They offered slightly more in the second half, but again had just two chances of note. The first saw Debuchy head Ribéry's cross over on the hour mark. Ten minutes later, following Busquets' sloppy giveaway, Ribéry burst down the left, but his cutback-cum-shot from the byline was collected by Casillas.

France's attacking substitutions – Ménez and Nasri for Debuchy and Malouda – in the 64th minute did little to change the pattern of play; that one chance after the changes started with a Spanish mistake. Meanwhile, Spain's substitutes eventually led to their second – after Torres was caught offside approximately 17 times. Pedro and Cazorla, on the other hand, combined to win an injury-time penalty: Cazorla's throughball, Pedro tripped by Réveillère, coolly scored by Alonso for his brace.

This is the eighth consecutive knock-out round game where Spain haven't conceded, stretching back to when they were knocked out of the 2006 World Cup by today's opponent – beating Italy, Russia, Germany (twice), Portugal, Paraguay, Holland, and now France without letting in a goal.

Once again, tiki-taka remains the best form of defense. Spain were always in control if not command, while France were impotent – and weren't helped by Blanc's four changes. It may have been dull at times, and Spain may not have been at its most impressive, but it was more than sufficient. Rather than yet another French implosion, the focus should be on Spain's continuing, seemingly effortless, supremacy. If any side is going to stop them from becoming the first team to win three consecutive major tournaments, they'll have to box far cleverer than France did today.

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

BRING HIM BACK TO ANFIELD!!! 50m pounds, what ever it takes!!
A little tear emerges from the corner of my eye everytime i see Alonso play :(
over to you Charlie Adam.