Spain was all business in its quarterfinal matchup with France, and thanks to Alonso’s goals, the defending champions will make a semifinal appearance in the European Championships next week.
FC Barcelona again clinched the majority of Spain’s lineup with five starters. Cesc returned to his false nine position over Torres and Piqué, Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets maintained their positions. Casillas, Ramos, Arbeloa, Alba, Alonso, and Silva rounded out the first XI.
As for France, Les Bleus made various technical changes, the most intriguing of which was benching Nasri for his attitude as much as for strategy. Lloris, Réveillere, Rami, Koscielny, Clichy, Cabaye, M’Vila, Malouda, Debuchy, Benzema and Ribéry all received the start.
Spain had never won against France in the European Championships and playing on legend Zinedine Zidane’s birthday may have seemed like a bad omen. However, in the fifth minute, Cesc shouted for a penalty after a French defender tripped him in the box. The referee was not impressed, though, and play continued.
Spain prodded the French defense with its patient passing. In the 19th minute, the long-awaited breakthrough came. Alba charged down the flank and hit a cross in front of the goal. Alonso stormed in from the midfield and whipped a header into the back of the net.
After going up a goal, Spain noticeably took its foot off the gas. The players focused more on passing and maintaining their lead than building off of it. Ramos conceded a dangerous free kick and earned a yellow card in the 31st minute for blocking Benzema. Casillas managed to pop the free kick over the bar and smother the resulting corner. France followed with its first booking in the 41st minute. Cabaye tackled goal scorer Alonso near the midfield and the referee was unsympathetic.
Both teams entered halftime lacking intensity. Spain was complacent and prepared to settle for a narrow win. France, even with star strikers like Ribéry and Benzema, could not create many solid scoring opportunities and needed an offensive boost for the last 45 minutes.
The second half kicked off without much noticeable change in either of the sides. In the knockout stages, it was clear that teams just wanted to scrape by and advance to the semifinal rather than put on a technical show.
A string of substitutions began in the 64th minute to refresh La Roja and Les Bleus. Menez replaced Debuchy and a minute later Nasri came on for Malouda. Spain followed when Pedro entered the game for Silva. Cesc was likewise relieved by Torres in the 67th minute.
The substitute Menez would miss France’s next game if it moved on since the referee showed him a yellow card for dissent in the 76th minute. The changes continued in the 79th minute as M’Vila took Giround’s seat on the bench. Spain’s final switch occurred in the 84th as Iniesta traded with Cazorla.
Just when it looked as if the last minutes would wind down with no real drama, France conceded a penalty. Pedro dribbled into the box on the way to the goal but Réveillere chopped him down in the process. The referee pointed to the spot and Alonso stepped up for the kick in the 91st minute. The Madrid man did not miss, scoring his brace in the European Championships and sending Spain ahead 2-0.
The final whistle blew a few short minutes later and Spain punched its ticket to a semifinal matchup with Iberian rivals Portugal on Wednesday. Although the tight score lines may be boring fans, the result is all that matters in a major international tournament. Spain isn’t concerned with the margin of defeat, just that it is on the winning side. And so far, that has been a successful mentality.
England and Italy will play Sunday and decide the final semifinal team. Germany beat Greece 4-2 on Friday and will entertain the English or Italians on Thursday.
Image Source: AP Photo/Matthias Schrader