Irresistible Spain grounded up ineffective France Saturday night in Donetsk and kept alive their European Championship dream of an unprecedented major triple with a 2-0 triumph.
The result sets up an all-Iberian semifinal with Portugal awaiting Spain at the Donbass next Wednesday. The final slot will be decided Sunday night, as England faces Italy, with a meeting in Warsaw against Germany the prize.
Sadly, this clash which many thought might be a special one, was instead a dire game to watch and easily the poorest of the tournament. There was little action on the field and the score neither reflects the character of the game nor France’s vanishing act. Simply put: Spain did what they had to, while France simply showed up and were easily shown up.
That said, Spain still maintains its apparently insatiable desire to add more trophies. And to give credit where it is due, it’s the first defending European champion to advance as far as a semifinal since the Netherlands in 1992. They continue to look at the prospect of winning two straight UEFA titles with a World Cup triumph in between.
Spain boss Vicente del Bosque continues to manage his resources well. He utilized Cesc Fabregas for over an hour to ease the work rate required from Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta, got another quiet, efficient game from Sergio Busquets and must have been pleased with the injection of pace that Pedro and Santi Cazorla offered late.
"The truth is we did well and controlled the game," said del Bosque. "Iker (Casillas) hardly had anything to do and that speaks of the good defensive performance of the team.”
Xabi Alonso scored both goals on a night when he collected his 100th cap. The first was a consummate header from a Jordi Alba cross in the 20th minute, the second an injury time penalty kick and Spain’s dominant midfield never let the French into the match. But for neutrals, it was a torturous 90 minutes to watch, as Spain employed its passing game at a snail’s pace, leaving France unable to do anything more than chase shadows.
Iker Casillas did have to make two reasonably difficult saves to protect Spain’s shutout, but he was by no means busy. At the other end, Hugo Lloris was not very active, either. He could do nothing to stop Xabi’s header, struck across the keeper’s body to the far post after the scorer was left completely alone by the French defense some 10 yards from goal.
That opening Spanish goal, which came when Andres Iniesta slipped a quick pass through to Jordi Alba to create an overlap on the left, was one of the few moments that the game sparked to life. But instead of a French comeback, Les Bleus never really came out of their eight-man defensive formation. The three second half changes made by Laurent Blanc did nothing to enliven a moribund attack.
It was Pedro Rodriguez who won the penalty that Xabi Alonso converted after his run into the box from a Xavi pass caught Anthony Revelliere in no-man’s land.
What Portugal will have to do is what France failed to: run at their defenders and break up that midfield. France’s performance showed some promise for the future; Franck Ribery only showed flashes, Karim Benzema was useless and the late introduction of Samir Nasri – a man fingered as being on the outs with his teammates – did nothing to change matters. If anything, Saturday’s match revealed that the Spanish team might be nearing the end of what has been a golden era.
This Spanish squad is a weary one for sure, and it’s hard to see any future opponents being frightened by them. This is not the juggernaut that steamrolled all challengers in South Africa, nor is it the side that looked so calculating in the 2008 European Championship.
Spain beat Portugal, 1-0 in Cape Town in the first match of the 2010 World Cup knockout round. If they can do it again, they’ll play in their third straight major final. Portugal, the only team remaining in the field that has never won a major championship, will be looking for both revenge and a piece of history.
"We have two less days to rest than them and I am thinking about this," said Spain’s boss del Bosque. "It is a small handicap. We have arrived very drained because the heat we suffered tonight was cruel on the players."
Portugal have to feel they have a very good chance to get revenge: Cristiano Ronaldo certainly looks to be the fizziest player left in this tournament. While they are hardly a complete team, the Portuguese have a freshness that this Spanish side utterly lacks. They cannot be discounted, even if Spain, on paper, remains the world’s best.