France 3-1 Spain
You can’t keep a good team down. France have, finally arrived at this tournament and, curiously enough, in exorcising still more of their own demons, they also showed up the limitations of Spain which were overlooked in the hyperbole following their opening win against Ukraine. Last night, they called on all their reserves of experience to overwhelm the Spanish.
The scoreline was flattering on the French. For eighty minutes, the two teams were inseparable – slugging it out like two prize heavyweight fighters. But then Henry went down, and it all changed. Now, I like Thierry Henry. He’s a brilliant footballer. One of the best in Europe. I’ve always felt that (regardless of the fact that he signed for Arsenal) he is an intelligent player, and one capable of always doing the “right thing”. Of course, he’s no such thing. Going down clutching his face after getting a bit of a whack across the chest is pretty reprehensible behaviour, no matter what way you look at it. His half-arsed justification of it only compounds it. For God’s sake. If you’re going to claim that a fellow professional whacked you across the face, at least have the good grace and courtesy to apologise for it afterwards.
France’s defensive experience dulled Spain’s attacking edge. A team that had scored eight goals in it’s previous three matches barely had a shot on target. Even their goal came from the penalty spot. The best players on the pitch were Makelele and Gallas, who ran their end of the middle-third of the pitch like their own personal fiefdoms. None shall pass indeed. Henry stills looks curiously out-of sorts in the national team, and continually strayed offside in his determination to get the ball. The Spanish had no real answer to it all.
Then there’s Zidane. Although Gallas and Makelele were the main men last night, Zidane, still putting off his final international appearance for Les Bleus, continues to play as something of an enigma. His goal was well taken (though the Spanish were broken by this point), but his real contribution was as Captain, dragging an angry Wily Sagnol away from the referee after the penalty award and saving his defender an unnecessary yellow card. He’s clearly not the player that he used to be, but he covers the lack of pace in his legs by playing the game with his brain.
For Spain, the psychological torture continues. Aragones will, in all likelihood, stay as their coach, but the tight unit that he had built was found wanting when it was put under pressure last night. For France, awakening at just the right time, the biggest test of all awaits: Brazil.