Spain united seeks first France win
Reigning champion has never beaten ‘Les Bleus’ at a major tournament
Spain faces old foe France for a place in the semifinals of the European Championships in Donetsk on Saturday (Telecinco, 8.45pm) but the boot that has so often found its way into the collective Iberian face is now firmly on the other foot.
The first competitive meeting at a major tournament between the continental neighbors came in the final of Euro 1984, where Spain was faced with the genius of Michel Platini. The France captain scored the first goal — his ninth of the tournament — in a 2-0 win to hand his nation its first major trophy and deny Spain its second.
In 1996, a 1-1 tie was played out in the group stage in England and the countries crossed paths again at the next tournament in Belgium and the Netherlands. With France leading 2-1 in the dying stages of the game, a young substitute named Raúl González fired a penalty wide and Spain headed for the airport.
Again, in 2006, a Zinedine Zidane-inspired France came from a goal down in Hanover to knock a fancied Spain side out of the World Cup 3-1. From there, the rest is well-documented history: that was the last time any side has managed to beat Spain in a tournament knock-out stage.
Spain has not got the better of France in six competitive attempts, but it did win friendlies against Les Bleus in 2008 and 2010. The inferiority complex that caused combustion in Germany has long since been removed and it is Laurent Blanc's side, finalists at the 2006 tournament, which is on a downward trajectory on the grand stage.
At the 2010 World Cup, France finished bottom of a group containing Uruguay, Mexico and the host nation, South Africa, with a single point gained from three matches and a scandal-triggering players' strike splashed France's stars all over the wrong side of the newspapers.
The débâcle was the final nail in the coffin of the Raymond Domenech era, which had begun to come off the rails at Euro 2008, when France again finished bottom of its group with a single point, the only mitigation being that this one featured Holland and Italy.
The Gallic propensity for autodestruction, already evidenced in the perma-posturing ranks of the Dutch squad at these Euros, has weakened a side tipped as a dark horse to go all the way before the tournament. Le Monde reported this week that internal bickering had reached such a level of vitriol that Hatem Ben Arfa reportedly asked Laurent Blanc to allow him to go home.
"We have awoken a few demons," Florent Malouda commented darkly.
On the field things are less than rosy for Blanc, with star forwards Franck Ribéry and Samir Nasri unable to train normally during the week and Karim Benzema freshly estranged from the opposition goal. Ribéry and Nasri have been passed fit but after the defeat to Sweden, Jérémy Ménez and Yohan Cabaye are likely to be recalled to the starting line-up. Arsenal center-half Laurent Koscielny will replace suspended AC Milan defender Philippe Mexés, one of the fulcrums of Blanc's team.
Spain, meanwhile, has no injury problems going into the tie, with the selection focus doubtless turning on whether or not Vicente del Bosque will field a striker. In the final group match against Croatia, the coach hauled Fernando Torres off on the hour mark and replaced him with winger Jesús Navas, Spain's eventual savior on the night. Against Italy, Del Bosque started with six midfielders, calling on Torres with 15 minutes to play. Álvaro Negredo has spent less than five minutes on the pitch and Fernando Llorente has yet to remove his tracksuit.
In an interview with French sports daily L'Équipe, the Spain coach hinted his side would seek again to pass its way to victory, despite struggling to do so against both Italy and Ukraine. As Spain's players concede, opponents have had four years to plot a way to stop its tiki-taka, which was first revealed to the world in earnest in Austria and Switzerland. "Firstly we want to press the opposition to snatch the ball from them, and if it is in their half so much the better. Later, we want to keep possession and seek depth, which don't necessarily have to be contradictory things," Del Bosque said.
Ronaldo awaits in the last four
Should Spain reach its third consecutive semifinal at a major tournament, it will play its Iberian neighbor, Portugal, for a berth in the July 1 showpiece after Cristiano Ronaldo headed his country into the last four late on Thursday night in Warsaw in a 1-0 victory over the Czech Republic.
There was a sense of inevitability that the Portugal captain, who put in a second consecutive man-of-the-match performance, would break the deadlock, largely because of his propensity to shoot at the mere whiff of goal.
Ronaldo tops both the shots on- and off-target tables, with 14 and 15 efforts respectively, and was the architect of half of Portugal's efforts against the Czechs. He is the tournament joint-top scorer with three and has rattled the woodwork four times. In total, Portugal mustered 20 shots to its opponents' two. Despite the rich form of its talismanic captain, Portugal is coming together as a team at the business end of the tournament, which goes some way to easing the loss of first-choice striker Hélder Postiga, who limped off with a hamstring injury.
"We had a lot of opportunities. The Czechs did not have any; that's a great game," Ronaldo said. "I think our chances of reaching the final are 50-50."