Who is going to beat Spain ?
Xabi Alonso (L) celebrate after scoring
DONETSK, Ukraine ● Slick Spain showed they are a team who know how to get results against ultra-defensive teams at major championships when they eased past France into the last four of Euro 2012 on Saturday.
Backed by a rock-solid defence and controlling possession for long periods, the Spanish were faced with a wall of white French shirts and turned in a typically assured and patient performance to beat Les Bleus for the first time in a competitive game.
The 2-0 victory was made all the sweeter by Xabi Alonso’s double in his 100th international and the holders march on to meet Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal in the last four as they seek to become the first nation to win back-to-back continental titles with a World Cup in between.
The Spanish players have grown used to teams sitting deep, crowding the midfield and looking to catch them on the break.
Cesc Fabregas, operating as a roving forward as he did against Italy in the opening game of the tournament, and playmakers Andres Iniesta, David Silva and Xavi were starved of room to manoeuvre and all had quiet nights.
But once Alonso’s 19th-minute header put the world champions in the driving seat it rapidly became clear that dominant Spain were more than capable of protecting their lead against a feeble French side as well as adding to their tally at any moment.
They have now kept 11 clean sheets and conceded only three goals in their last 14 European Championship and World Cup matches and have scored in 18 successive competitive games.
“We controlled the match even though we knew it wouldn’t be easy against an opponent that was sitting deep but it became easier after the goal,” Alonso said.
“It was a big quarter-final match and you have to know how to play them,” the 30-year-old added.
“Now we’ll enjoy getting through before thinking about the semi-finals.”
Coach Vicente del Bosque underlined the strength in depth in the squad when he brought on striker Fernando Torres and the pacy Pedro to shake things up midway through the second half.
Torres was well shackled by the French defenders but Pedro produced a delicious moment of skill to draw a foul from France defender Anthony Reveillere in the penalty area and Alonso calmly stroked the spot-kick into the net.
Alonso and fellow holding midfielder Sergio Busquets rarely win the same plaudits or catch the eye or in the same way as Iniesta or Silva.
But the way they combined to block off many of France’s forays forward frustrated Les Bleus and Laurent Blanc’s side were limited to just four shots and only one on target, a free kick that Iker Casillas comfortably turned around the post.
Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique, a relatively new pairing in central defence, were equally assured and Ramos’s Real Madrid team mate Karim Benzema barely had a sniff of goal.
It remains to be seen whether Portugal use similar tactics for Wednesday’s last-four clash between the Iberian neighbours, also in Donetsk.
Whatever the case, Portuguese captain Ronaldo, who plays at Real with Ramos and regularly comes up against Barcelona centre back Pique in La Liga, will almost certainly pose a greater threat than the toothless French.