Spain progressed to the semi-finals of Euro 2012 last night with a routine 2-0 win over Laurent Blanc’s listless France. The holders took the lead through a Xabi Alonso header early on, before a late penalty from the same player – making his 100th appearance for Spain – secured the win.
As in the group stage, Spain started the game without a recognised forward on the pitch, with Cesc Fabregas ploughing a lone furrow ahead of the central midfield trident of Xavi, Iniesta and Alonso.
In a bid to stifle Spanish winger Jordi Alba’s influence, France deployed Lyon right-back Anthony Réveillère on the right hand side of midfield, with first-choice full-back Mathieu Debuchy playing behind him.
Predictably, Spain dominated the early stages of the match, with right-back Alvaro Arbeloa seeing plenty of the ball as France chose to concentrate on defending the left wing. Just 5 minutes in Fabregas had a penalty claim waved away, the Barcelona man tumbling too easily under former Arsenal team-mate Gaël Clichy’s challenge.
If France’s game plan was to soak up pressure and reach half-time goalless, it didn’t work. Just 19 minutes in, Jordi Alba’s cross was headed back across goal by the late-arriving Xabi Alonso, nestling in Hugo Lloris’ far corner. Ironically, given France’s doubling-up on Alba, the goal had come from the Valencia man’s wingplay.
The goal forced France to come out of their shell, but it took Blanc’s men 25 minutes to register their first shot on goal: Karim Benzema’s hideously ballooned free-kick, which sailed over Iker Casillas’ crossbar, highlighted the difference in effiency between the two teams – Spain’s first effort on target had resulted in a goal.
With set-pieces commonly highlighted as the easiest way to score against Spain, it was Yohan Cabaye’s curling free-kick on the half-hour mark that had Casillas scrambling for the first time in the match. Tellingly, Cabaye’s effort, from 35 yards out, was the closest his country would come to scoring.
Half-time allowed France to regroup, and unsurprisingly, the second half saw Les Blues commit more men forward as they recognised they were 45 minutes away from elimination. With Benzema and Bayern Munich winger Franck Ribery underwhelming, it was full-back Mathieu Debuchy’s header that narrowly cleared Casillas’ crossbar and fired a warning to the previously untroubled Spanish defence.
However, France’s need to score provided Spain with an opportunity to counter-attack – just after the hour mark Fabregas was sent clear, only denied by Lloris racing off his line to block. Recognising further firepower was needed, Blanc replaced Debuchy and Florent Malouda with the more attacking duo of Jeremy Menez and Samir Nasri with 25 minutes remaining. Having played the majority of the game without a recognised striker, Spain introduced Fernando Torres for Fabregas soon afterwards. It is hard to imagine any other country being able to win matches fairly comfortably without a forward in their starting line-up – a testament to Spain’s ability.
With 12 minutes remaining, France sent on targetman Olivier Giroud, but it was too little, too late as Blanc’s men neglected to throw the proverbial kitchen sink at their illustrious opponents. Indeed, French misery was further compounded as Réveillère upended Pedro in the last minute. Alonso confidently sent Lloris the wrong way from the spot to secure his country’s passage to the semi-finals, and book a mouthwatering clash with Portugal.
The French players’ lack of reaction at the final whistle said it all: they never looked like upsetting the odds against a below-par Spain team that eased off after scoring. Spain had never beaten France in a competitive game before last night, and they could well be making further history by winning three successive major competitions come the final on 1 July.