After almost three decades of trying, Spain have finally beaten France in a major international tournament.
Saturday’s 2-0 victory at the Donbass Arena in Donetsk gave the Spanish their first competitive triumph in five attempts against their Gallic opponents, a run that began in the 1984 European Championships final at the Parc des Princes.
The question marks that surround the current European and World Champions remain however, despite the comfortable manner in which la Roja overcame a French side lacking any attacking intent.
There has been mixed reactions to the team’s performance in Spain, with significant disparity between the Madrid and Barcelona-based Press – hardly surprising given their contrasting agendas and standpoints. Marca claim it was the side’s best performance of the tournament so far, and probably quite correctly, but Catalan daily Mundo Deportivo devoted significant copy to the shortcomings of a side that once again failed to finish their opponents off at the earliest opportunity.
The international media went even further, with yet more suggestions that Spain’s ball-dominance has evolved into football tedium without an end product, which is extremely harsh on Del Bosque and his team, it has to be said. Viewed from a tactical point of view, many would argue Spain played the perfect 45 minutes of football on Saturday night. Trailing by one goal at half time, France had not one effort on target during the entire second half. Spain must have done something right.
The main talking point has been team selection of course and more specifically who will occupy the main striker position. Del Bosque surprised many on Saturday by returning to the same line-up that laboured to a 1-1 draw against Italy in the opening group game, preferring to utilise Cesc Fabregas in a ‘false 9’ role ahead of traditional centre-forward Fernando Torres.
It was a bold move from the Coach as the gamble fell flat against the Italians, leaving Spain looking less than convincing and at times almost uncomfortable. Against France, the formation differed slightly with the deep-lying midfielders of Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets looking far more comfortable than they have done in recent games. Alonso occupied a more advanced role on occasion and was on hand to head Jordi Alba’s delightful cross past Hugo Lloris mid-way through the first half.
It was somewhat ironic that the breakthrough came from a move down the left flank – an area French Coach Laurent Blanc had quite obviously highlighted, choosing to employ two right-backs in an effort to nullify Alba.
The decision was proven ill-advised when Mathieu Debuchy slipped to the turf in pursuit of the Valencia youngster, and when Alba saw Alonso arriving unmarked in the penalty area, Spain had the French exactly where they wanted them.
The impotent performance of Les Bleus leaves the question marks in place over the Spanish team, however. It is unclear whether the decision to ease back down the gears in the second half was a tactical decision or something more significant.
Accusations of fatigue and motivation still appear on a daily basis and there can be no avoiding the fact that Spain have been far less impressive than during their World Cup triumph in South Africa or when on their march to the Euro 2008 title.
Nonetheless, Vicente Del Bosque has guided his team into the semi-finals where they will face a stern test from Iberian neighbours, Portugal. Cristiano Ronaldo has been in dominant form so far during the tournament and his side are sure to offer a more attacking presence than the toothless French in Donetsk.
Paradoxically, however, this may well prove the catalyst for a Spanish performance to banish the growing criticism they are receiving. After all, victory would put Spain just one match away from an unprecedented third successive international triumph.