Man of the Match: An early Spain goal meant there weren’t many stand out performances, the game contested between an Spain team lacking ambition and a France side deprived of the ball. Xabi Alonso, however, had a day to remember, scoring twice in his centennial appearance for La Roja. A fine first half header provided the early winner, with a late penalty kick completing the midfielder’s double.
Packaged for takeaway:
- Pre-match changes sent heads spinning as to what the coaches had in mind, and given how the match slowed down after Spain’s opener, the game’s most interesting aspect was the mundane tactical battle set up by Laurent Blanc’s selection:
- For Spain, it wasn’t much of a mystery. Fernando Torres was out. Cesc Fabregas was in, with Vicente Del Bosque coming good on his mid-week misgivings about his starting XI. This meant Spain planned to play with … (wait for it) … a false nine! ZOMGs!
- For France, the changes were more meaningful. Philippe Mexes was suspended, so Arsenal’s Laurent Koscielny came in. Anthony Revelliere was also brought into the defense, with normal starting right back Mathieu Debuchy pushed into midfield. Florent Malouda came in to bolster to the middle, while Samir Nasri and Hatem Ben Arfa went to the bench.
- That Nasri and Ben Arfa were dropped wasn’t much of a surprise. Nasri had come under fire for being too slow in his passing and not diligent enough with his defending. Ben Arfa was talking on his cell phone in the locker room after the Sweden game, electing not to take part of the team’s post-match discussions.
- France’s formation was 4-5-1, with its initial distribution mimicking a kind of 4-3-2-1 except for Debuchy playing as a type of right-sided sweeper. Blanc obviously didn’t want Andres Iniesta deciding the match. Debuchy tracked the Spain star until he could be handed off to Revelliere, and vice-versa. When Revelliere was pulled wide, Debuchy would drop into the space.
- Adding to some of the confusion on the defense’s right, Adil Rami did much of the marking on Cesc Fabregas, which (given how Spain played) pulled him in a number of different directions. Debuchy helped here, also. When Rami was taken too far out of position, that usually meant the ball was on the right, which allowed Debuchy to drop into that space.
- As the half went on, Franck Ribery started going out to his normal left wing position, leaving France with an amorphous 4-5-1.
- Nineteen minutes in, Iniesta destroyed all that planning. Yohan Cabaye (who had been playing on the right of France’s “2” level in midfield) came to support, help that seemed to cause some confusion. Debuchy and Revelliere didn’t know what to do without being able to use Iniesta as their indicator. This allowed left back Jordi Alba to blow down the flank and, after Iniesta had drawn everybody to him, get behind the defense and onto a through ball.
- Alba’s cross from the left of the area was perfect, finding Alonso ghosting into the box, connecting with him 14 yards out (even with the right post). Alonso hit a perfect header to the left of Hugo Lloris, bouncing it four yards in front of the line and into goal.
- But where was Alonso’s man? Replays showed Alonso start his run from near the center circle. Florent Malouda never broke out of a walk.
- Another interesting first half tactical nuance was Sergio Busquets’ positioning. Spain employs a much-maligned double pivote, but in the first half against France, he was often positioned much higher than Alonso, at one point applying the pressure to the French defense. Was this a response to France’s lineup? Their set up? Until the goal, Spain played with two players at Xavi Hernández’s level of the field.
- After the goal, France started to take more liberties going forward. They generated two crosses into the penalty area down their left side but failed to offset Spain’s possession dominance. The rest of the half had the same feel of Spain-Ireland’s first period – the holders having swapped their drive for a goal.
- France maintained their approach, beginning the second half with the same set up. The only tweak was making Ribery into more of a forward, though the team’s best chances continued to come from their left side. In the 62nd and 71st minutes, France could have easily had equalizers, but nice reads from Iker Casillas snuffed out problems before they could take root.
- Del Bosque tried to change things up, bringing on Pedro Rodríguez and Fernando Torres (France had already brought on Samir Nasri and Jeremy Menez). The substitutions had only one effect: More offside calls against Spain. Koscielny had a pretty easy time trapping Torres.
- France continued to be the more dangerous side, but unable to offset Spain’s possession, they couldn’t sustain an attack. Their moments of pressure were too isolated to build on each other, preventing them from catching Spain off-guard.
- Spain finally put the match away in extra time when Pedro drew a questionable penalty from Reveilliere, leaving them with a flattering scoreline.
- The win gives Spain a semifinal a meeting with Portugal – 90 minutes that could prove very similar to what we just endured. Portugal has a recent win over Spain but are likely to erect a bunker. Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani offer new threats, but the conflict is the same: Can Portugal allocate the resources they need to hold Spain off while still providing a way to get the ball to their dangermen?
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