If Germany versus Greece or Portugal versus the Czech Republic didn’t quite scratch the itch after the end of the group stages of this summers European Championships, then this evenings blast of Saturday night fever from Donetsk surely must. Two heavyweights of international football – both of which have won back to back World Cups and European Championships over the course of the last decade and a half – squaring up to each other for the right to play Cristiano Ronaldo – sorry, Portugal – in the semi-finals of the competition.
Yet neither of the two sides has been firing on all cylinders in this competition so far. Spain were held by Italy in their opening match and required a last minute goal to see off Croatia in their last, while France failed to beat a lack-lustre England side and then lost their final qualifying match against a Swedish side that had already been eliminated from the competition. In addition to this, there has been a degree of improvisation and confusion about the build-up to this match which is wholly out of keeping with for this stage of a tournament. Spain have opted, again, to play without a striker, while France, who have developed a habit for this sort of thing in recent years, have apparently been fighting amongst themselves again.
Still, though, there is a sense of occasion surrounding this match that was missing from the first two quarter-finals. With Cristiano Ronaldo moving into form in the ominous manner in which he has, Portugal will surely be anything but push-overs in the semi-finals, so to presume that the winners of this match will be playing in the final by effective default would seem to be a little previous. For all the excitement, though, those team-sheets make for dispiriting reading. Leaving aside what being left out of the side for effectively no-one – okay, Cesc Fabregas, if we’re being picky – must be doing for Fernando Torres’ self-confidence, there is a lingering suspicion that with the two teams having opted to play one striker between them this match turn out to be European footballs ultimate triumph of style over substance.
It takes eighteen minutes for something substantive to happen – although Spain have a half-hearted appeal for a penalty kick waved away when Cesc Fabregas is shunted over by Gael Clichy in pursuit of a ball that he was never going to get on the end of – but when it comes, it changes the face of the game completely. Andres Iniesta, who may well have spent the entire previous seventeen minutes standing mid-way inside the French half absent-mindedly chewing on a toothpick, collects the ball and threads it through to full-back Jordi Alba. Albas marker, Debuchy, slips and he swings a cross to the far post for Xabi Alonso to head the ball back across the face of goal and in. It may be a little more than Spain deserve, but it’s no less than France do. It feels as if they have lost this game before it even kicked off, with a formation which sent out a message that, even though they have the players to do so much better, they couldn’t think of a way of winning this match that didn’t read, “Defend, defend, defend.”
A goal down and with less than a quarter of the match played, France look beaten already and for a couple of minutes it feels as if Spain could merely run away with this, but France wake up a little bit and a free-kick from Cabaye has to be smartly flicked over the crossbar by Iker Casillas, who may have found cobwebs under his arms as he stretched for the ball. But after that, the match resumes its flat-as-a-pancake pace and Spain hold their lead – and, more or less without interruption, possession – until half-time. Arguably more troubling than what has taken place is what is going on in the stands, which is nothing. It takes merely twenty-five minutes for the first Mexican Wave to get going, and this is only interrupted because of the swathes of empty seats inside the stadium. The match has the feel of a pre-season friendly about it, right down to the odd experimental formations, and this, with a television audience of millions – more likely tens or perhaps even hundreds of millions – watching, could provoke a headache for UEFA. What, after all, might sponsors make of a match in which even the two teams don’t even seem to care that much?
The second half brings changes. Laurent Blanc abandons the two right-backs tactic that lasted all of nineteen minutes before being shown up for the house of cards that it was, and twenty minutes later, with nothing else much of note having happened, they Debuchy and Malouda with Nasri and Menez, while Spain exchange Silva for Pedro. A couple of minutes later – and a mere three-quarters of the way through the game – Spain finally deign to introduce a striker and bring on Fernando Torres for Cesc Fabregas. Within a couple of minutes, M’Vila slips the ball between two defenders for Franck Ribery on the left-hand side. Ribery looks as if he has run down a cul-de-sac but manages to pull out a cross-cum-shot which Casillas has to save smartly at his near post. It’s not much, but it’s something. In the last minute, Pedro is bundled over by Reveillere and Spains win is confirmed. France, in this moment, are put out of their misery, and the first of the semi-finals of this years European Championships will be an Iberian derby between Portugal and Spain.
Yet there was something missing tonight. It’s not a matter of living up to the hype. The hype can be easily avoided by going for a walk in the park and feeding the ducks. Tonight, we saw a facsimile of a knock-out football match. Spain had an excuse. They did what they had to do, and they did it effectively. Regardless of what we think of their style of football – and there are plenty that would happily describe it as grindingly boring – it is at least effective. France, meanwhile, had no such excuse. They had seventy minutes to scrap and fight to drag their way back into the game, but it felt as if they settled tonight for keeping the score respectable. The few French supporters that did make the trip north tonight were within their rights to feel short-changed by their team tonight. Spain, meanwhile, rumble on, passing their opposition into submission with frightening regularity. The question now may be one of whether Cristiano Ronaldo will settle for the sort of servitude that France offered this evening. It’s difficult to imagine that he will.
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