Sometimes in football the scoreline is not a true reflection of the game. Saturday night’s Euro 2012 quarter-final between Spain and France, which ended 2-0 to the world champions, was one of those occasions. It was a complete mismatch and deserved to finish with a more emphatic outcome.
Laurent Blanc’s men, quite rightly, went into the game given a hope, albeit a slim one, of causing an upset. Instead, they went out with a whimper, entirely failing to impose themselves in any manner on the encounter, with La Furia Roja goalkeeper Iker Casillas unemployed.
Just as the coach was questioned after the embarrassing group stage loss against Sweden, he will face more questions after fielding another starting XI so bizarre that it seemed like something out of Raymond Domenech’s star-gazing book.
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Square pegs were again put in round holes as France failed to heed lessons that should have been learned on Tuesday night. Worse still, the lack of game plan was clear, as the players spent the first half wondering exactly what it was they were being asked to do.
This was a side that lacked both solidarity and enterprise.
Against the best midfield in the world, the only orthodox central midfielder deployed was the youthful Yann M’Vila. Florent Malouda was again fielded in this sector, despite failed experiments in the past, while Mathieu Debuchy reprised a role he played in the early part of his career but rarely since.
Samir Nasri, a major creative hub, and Alou Diarra, a tower of strength as a midfield anchor in this competition, were the players to be axed. To an extent, Blanc's hand was forced by their dressing room tete-a-tete following the Sweden collapse, but the disciplinarian within the coach clouded his pragmatism.
The result was a mess, and it was little surprise that Xabi Alonso headed home the opening goal unmarked, with Malouda not even making any pretence about marking the Real Madrid midfielder as he watched on 20 yards away as France fell behind.
What was left was an unbalanced and uncertain nothingness, neither offering more attacking danger nor more defensive assurance. It was little surprise Spain had things so easy initially.
That Les Bleus were only a goal down at the interval was fortunate. After the break, there was an improvement, but it was only slight, and over the course of the match, Casillas was never significantly tested by a shot on goal.
It was a night to remember. Xabi Alonso had seen his place in the Spain side questioned earlier on Saturday as some early reports suggested Vicente del Bosque may dispense with his much-maligned ‘double pivot’ for the game against France, but the only surprise was Cesc Fabregas starting in the false-nine role.
Alonso was installed in midfield and at his imperious best as he sprayed the ball around the park in a first half completely controlled by Spain. And he popped up in an advanced position to head home Jordi Alba’s pinpoint cross to make it 1-0 to La Roja, too. Too defensive? Hardly.
The Real Madrid man wears the number 14 for Spain and that was his 14th goal at international level, but there was more to come as he coolly converted a penalty in added time to make it 2-0 and 15 strikes for La Roja.
Much of the pre-match talk had been about Karim Benzema, but it was his club colleague who made the difference on the night. So often an unsung hero for his country, Alonso netted both goals and also claimed his 100th cap on a perfect evening for him personally. Don’t expect him to be dropped any time soon.
While a lack of tactical direction accounted for much of France’s troubles, a lack of team spirit remains obvious, too.
Pundits had commentated that the much-publicised fallout after the Sweden loss would spur them on, but there was little evidence of renewed desire in the France ranks.
From the outset they played like a side lacking belief, adopting a lacklustre attitude from the opening blows of the game, with the players' cowardly stance seemingly deriving from the lack of faith their coach put in them.
When Anthony Reveillere’s clumsy challenge on Pedro invited Alonso to score his second from the spot, there was a sense of inevitability from the France squad, while Nasri would have been as well remaining on the bench, such was his lack of desire to have an impact on the game. Even the youthful M’Vila seemed to lack genuine enthusiasm, refusing a handshake as he trudged off the field when being replaced.
Ultimately, it was a performance that showed France are still miles behind the world’s best when it truly matters, but the real sense of disappointment will come from the fact that they did not come close to reaching their potential.
Blanc will now have the sound of ‘Ole!’ ringing in his ears as he decides whether to continue as boss of France.
While ‘Lolo’ has got much right during his two-year stint, he’s come up short when it mattered most, and he, like most of his young squad, must now retreat and decide how best to recover from the footballing lesson administered so clinically by Spain, who they must meet twice in World Cup qualifying.
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