Story by Aaron Bliss
With Xabi Alonso celebrating his century of Spanish caps, he lined up alongside five other midfielders, as reigning champions Spain started with their notorious strikerless formation once more. The antithesis of Scotland’s also-famed strikerless formation, Spain were favourites for the match, though not as overwhelmingly as usual. France had been considered dark horses before the tournament began, on the back of a twenty one match unbeaten run, but the wheels had come off a little, as a promising opening against England ended with a demoralising defeat to already-eliminated Sweden, to leave them facing the indomitable Spaniards. The rumour mill suggested the fragile French harmony had been broken by Hatem Ben Arfa and Samir Nasri amongst others, but if their midfield could prove to be as incisive as we have come to expect from Premier League stalwarts such as Nasri and Yohann Cabaye, and Karim Benzema could finally transfer his explosive Real Madrid form, then France were definitely equipped to dismantle those swashbuckling conquistadors, though their formation of a back four with Debuchy patrolling in front seemed to suggest fear rather than fire with fire.
The game began with the Spanish manipulating the ball once more like it was on marionette strings, and Francesc Fabregas was mortified not to be awarded a penalty when Gael Clichy bundled into the back of him inside the box. Despite this early warning, France were once again left all-of-a-dither on 19 minutes, as a cheeky little dribble from Andres Iniesta saw the ball poked through for Jordi Alba, raiding down the left flank. Mathieu Debuchy then chose a horrible moment to lose all balance and crash to the floor, as Alba shrugged off his meek challenge to get to the byline and dink a cross that was signed, sealed and delivered to the unmarked centenarian forehead of Xabi Alonso, heading it back across Lloris, who no doubt shot an accusing glance at Clichy, who had left Alonso in about ten yards of space, and could only throw some kind of spider monkey high-kick at the ball as it flew past him, though Florent Malouda had a lot to answer for. Alonso wheeled away with a cheeky grin on his Desperate Dan ginger-bearded face, and raced off for some more cow pie. Cabaye replied for a France with a cracking free-kick, but Casillas dealt with it well, while Gerard Pique sent a free header from a corner over the crossbar, perhaps mindful of the fact that scoring from set-pieces is beneath Spain.
The second half saw a slightly more stirring counter strike from the French, with their gargoyle Ribery finally putting his dribbling skills to good use in beating his man and teasing in an excellent cross which Debuchy nodded narrowly North of Casillas’ crossbar. More French pressure was dealt with by Busquets, and the slow and precise counter-attack saw the French offside suddenly sprung by a magnificent angled through-ball from Xavi, taking three French defenders out of the game and needing Lloris to race out and beat Fabregas to the ball and deny a certain goal. Spain, despite winning, then conspired to send on Pedro and Fernando Torres, to add to their attacking thrust, perhaps mindful of killing off a dangerous French side. Almost immediately Pedro was put through down the left, and his cross to Torres in the middle saw a hitherto-unheard of line of commentary:
“Great defending from Laurent Koscielny!”
Ribery’s trickery at the other end saw a sprawling Casillas, but the game was effectively over when France conceded a penalty in added time, one of the few of the tournament so far, and fully justified, as Anthony Reveillere barged into the back of Pedro, who was through on goal. Ton-up star Alonso stepped up to slide the penalty home, and Spain look forward to a semi-final date with neighbours Portugal.