There is a long standing debate in the football world as to how to deal with the World and European Champions Spain.
The Spaniards ‘tika-taka’ style of play has drawn admirers across the world and has left a plethora of well respected sides mesmerised into surrender. The overriding opinion is that the best way to defeat Vincente Del Bosque’s side is to soak up pressure and hit them on the counter attack.
However, this approach has proved fruitless for many a side and with the Spanish appearing frail at the back, and ahead of the two side’s Quarter Final clash some observers believed that French coach Laurent Blanc would be better served by adopting a more attacking philosophy and deploying the likes of Jeremy Menez and Olivier Giroud in order to unsettle the Spaniards’ rhythm.
Instead Blanc opted to select a more defensive line-up, employing Anthony Reveillere at right-back with Mathieu Debuchy pushed further forward to the right side of midfield. Yohan Cabaye returned to the centre of midfield in place of Alou Diarra while Florent Malouda replaced Hatem Ben Arfa in attacking midfield.
France were the last team to defeat Spain in a tournament game back in 2006, when Raymond Domenech’s side triumphed 3-1 on route to the World Cup Final.
Les Bleus never looked like emerging triumphant in Donetsk however, as they surrendered meekly to a below par Spanish side in a game that struggled to capture the imagination.
The World Champions were predictably the quickest team out of the blocks and had an early shout for a penalty turned down after Cesc Fabregas and Gael Clichy had tangled in the penalty area. It didn’t take long for the Spaniards to take the lead though, as some disappointing French defending allowed Xabi Alonso to head home after Jordi Alba had latched on to Andres Iniesta’s pass to deliver a pinpoint cross into the path of the Real Madrid man.
Spain, despite their proficiency in possession, struggled to create many clear cut chances. Still with the threat of French fightback appearing unlikely, there was no real need for La Roja to overstretch themselves in search of the 2nd goal.
France did manage to fashion some resistance late in the first half, Cabaye forcing Iker Casillas into fine save with a long-range free-kick that appeared destined for the top corner.
This seemed to give France a minor foothold in the contest, with Franck Ribery enjoying some success down the left hand side and Karim Benzema appearing livelier than he had done earlier in the tournament.
Still Spain always looked the more likely to score again, Gerard Pique heading over from a corner just before the half time interval.
Whatever Blanc said to his troops at the break appeared to have had some effect. Indeed France started the second half with increased vigour and aggression, pressing Spain higher up the pitch and forcing La Roja into more errors while Ribery slowly began to make inroads into the Spanish box.
Chances continued to be few and far between despite a slightly improved performance from Les Bleus, and although it was the French who had the first real chance of the second half – Mathieu Debuchy heading over from Ribery’s left-wing cross – the lack of dynamism in the France attack finally forced Blanc into rolling the dice, the former Bordeaux boss throwing Menez and Samir Nasri into the fray in place of Debuchy and Malouda.
Del Bosque also chose to shake things up in the Spanish ranks, Pedro Rodriguez and Fernando Torres replacing David Silva and Fabregas.
Ribery soon went close for France after being put through superbly by Yann M’Vila, but overall Blanc’s men had little success in breaking down the Spanish defence in spite of the changes made by the former World Cup winner.
Giroud was also eventually flung into the action as French desperation grew, but in the end it was the introduction of Pedro that ultimately proved to be instrumental in settling the game, the Barcelona attacker breaking his way into the French box in injury time before being clipped by Reveillere.
The resulting spot-kick was duly tucked away by Alonso for his second of the game, signalling the end of what has been a poor tournament for Les Bleus.
A lack of ambition – which was so evident against Sweden and Spain – has put paid to Les Bleus’ hopes of winning the tournament. The investigations and inquiries will begin in earnest, but for now France must deal with the disappointment of leaving a major competition after once again failing to make any kind of significant impression.