Three UEFA Euro 2012 quarter-finals down and the first semi-final is set. Overall it’s been a fascinating and even sometimes exciting tournament, but despite the presence of one of its better teams in the last eight match in Donetsk tonight, quarter-final three was a test for even the keenest viewer.
Spain were not at their best and at times they stifled the game, but they were guided to what was ultimately a worthy victory by a newly crowned centurion.
Spain 2-0 France (Quarter-Final)
The match settled into a predictable rhythm quickly, with Spain attacking with patience and France unwilling to risk too many attacks of their own. It took 18 minutes for the world and European champions to take the lead and present a new challenge to the French, and the goal came from Xabi Alonso on his 100th appearance for Spain. Jordi Alba’s persistence and balance on the left wing paid off and his cross eluded a number of bodies in the box before being headed back across goal by Alonso. Hugo Lloris was heading the other way and had no chance of adjusting.
There wasn’t too much more to report about the first half. France were struggling to keep up and Spain were their usual selves, knocking the ball around freely if not quite with the highest quality availability to them. This is a team that is obsessive, almost religious about passing the ball. There is no second nature here; picking the nearest man, the right man, and giving him the ball at the earliest opportunity is first nature to a very special group of players. It’s not for everyone, but it’s effective on more than one level and it certainly works for Vicente del Bosque and his players.
Les Bleus were much brighter in the first 15 minutes of the second half as Spain got slightly bogged down in their determination to hold the game at 1-0. Chances didn’t come often for France but they came close after an hour. Franck Ribery, largely disappointing this evening, battled in the left-hand channel and pinged a peach of a cross in for makeshift right midfielder Mathieu Debuchy, who headed narrowly over. France continued to press for an equaliser and attacking substitutions would soon be made by Laurent Blanc.
But Lloris, Adil Rami and Laurent Koscielny all had to be on their toes to prevent Spain from doubling their lead. Their main threat in the middle of the second half was Cesc Fabregas, and when he was replaced by Fernando Torres the Chelsea man occupied similar positions to keep the French defence aware that Spain could put the game to bed by taking just one more chance.
Thirty seconds from the end Spain had a penalty. Substitute Pedro was bundled over – not exactly against his will – by Anthony Reveillere, and Alonso was never going to miss from twelve yards. Lloris went to his left, Alonso went to his, and France’s half-interested fightback was over.
For all of Spain’s undeniable quality and the intricate beauty of much of their play, this quarter-final could have put Jedward into a coma. Portugal await the Spanish in the first semi-final and they’ll have to offer a lot more than France did this evening. What France do not have is Cristiano Ronaldo, who can turn a game against even the best opposition. If he’s going to have a moment, the last four of Euro 2012 might just be it.