KEIR RADNEDGE in DONETSK
— Spain had never beaten France in six competitive meetings coming into tonight’s quarter-final at Euro 2012. But two goals from Xabi Alonso wiped out that piece of history in the Donbass Arena and drove the world and European champions on to an Iberian derby against Portugal with a 2-0 win.
The French came in to the match having to cope not only with the danger of the world’s dominant national team with with the spectre of their own demons, raised by the dressing-room strife after the surprise last group defeat by Sweden.
Manager Laurent Blanc had fielded all the questions with great equanimity, talking about the philosophy of the match and the contrasting styles. But he had insisted that France needed to hold their lines for the first 20 minutes. To that end he brought in Anthony Reveillere as an extra rightback to assist Mathieu Debuchy in closing down the space around Andres Iniesta.
Spain manager Vicente Del Bosque reverted to the ‘Levein option’ of playing without a recognised striker.
His plan worked better than that of Blanc. Precisely one minute short of the 20 Xavi fed Iniesta and he sent Jordi Alba down the left. Debuchy slipped and fell as he lost the chase and Alba had enough time and space to deliver a far-post cross which was very deliberately headed down and home by Alonso.
Spain considered justice had been done. Fabregas had claimed a penalty in the fifth minute after being ‘leaned’ to the ground by former Arsenal team-mate Gael Clichy.
The goal itself was the 20th headed strike out of 68 at these finals as well as the Real Madrid anchor man’s 14th international goal for a Spanish team seeking to become the first to make it three in a row: Euro, World Cup and Euro again.
France had no option. The holding option had gone. They had to forge forward, accepting the risk of being hit on the counter attack. Spain defended at the cost of a string of free kicks. Karim Benzema blasted one high over the bar, Yohan Cabaye forced a flying tip-over-the-bar from Iker Casillas with another.
France pushed forward with more determination in the early stages of the second half but threatened Casillas just the once when Franck Ribery did well to put in a left-wing cross from Debuchy headed over the bar.
Otherwise Spain continued to dominate possession but Del Bosque was clearly growing frustrated at the failure to extend their lead and, midway through the second half, brought on Pedro and Fernando Torres in search of more penetration.
France countered with the attacking introductions of Jeremy Menez and Samir Nasri and then, with 10 minutes left, Montpellier striker Olivier Giroud in place of holding midfielder Yann M’Vila.
All in vain. Pedro was pulled down in the final minute of nomal time and Alonso stepped forward to send France keeper Lloris the wrong way with his match-deciding penalty and secire that Iberian derby back in Donetsk against Portugal next Wednesday.
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