KEIR RADNEDGE in DONETSK
— History is bunk, said Henry Ford. Or something like that. Spain proved him right in one corner of the football industry by reaching the Euro 2012 semi-finals with their first victory over France in seven competitive meetings.
Two goals from Xabi Alonso – one early, one very late – sent Spain ticking to a 2-0 win and thus onwards to an Iberian derby against Portugal back in Donetsk on Wednesday. Alonso, playing his 100th international, was duly and properly voted official man of the match.
The French had entered the quarter-final needing to withstand both the world’s dominant national team as well as demons of their own internal strife – the spectre of South Africa 2010 having been aroused in the wake of the surprise, and utterly crucial as it turned out, last group defeat by Sweden.
France manager Laurent Blanc is shortly out of contract and possibly out of a job as well. He had withstood the pressure of the media maelstrom with great equanimity; what he could not do was go out on the pitch himself to deny Spain the web of possession in which they trapped his team.
He had wanted France to hold their lines for at least 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 on Blanc’s watch Xavi fed Iniesta who sent Jordi Alba down the left. Debuchy slipped and fell as he lost the chase so Alba had enough time and space to deliver a far-post cross which was deliberately headed down and home by Alonso.
Spain considered justice had been done. Cesc Fabregas had claimed a penalty in the fifth minute after being pushed to the ground by his former Arsenal team-mate Gael Clichy.
Alonso’s goal was the 20th headed strike out of 69 at these finals as well as the Real Madrid anchor man’s 14th at international level 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 choice. 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 into the crowd, Yohan Cabaye forced a flying tip-over-the-bar save from Iker Casillas with another.
France pushed forward with more determination in the early stages of the second half but threatened Casillas only the once when Franck Ribery did well to put in a left-wing cross which Debuchy headed over the bar.
Spain continued to go round and round in circles of endless possession until, eventually, even coach Del Bosque grew tired of admiring the pretty patterns and sent on Pedro and Fernando Torres in search of more attacking penetration.
France countered with attacking introductions of their own in the shapes of Jeremy Menez, Samir Nasri and then, with 10 minutes left, Montpellier striker Olivier Giroud. All to no avail.
Pedro was pulled down in the final minute of normal time and Alonso stepped forward to send France keeper Hugo Lloris the wrong way with his match-deciding penalty and secure Wednesday’s Iberian derby date.
As for the other semi-final – in Warsaw on Thursday – Germany await the winners of the imminent reacquaintance between England and Italy.
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