No game at the European Championship will have more attacking talent on show than tonight's quarter-final between Spain and France in Donetsk. But it does not feel like a shoot-out. These are two flawed teams, both of whom underwhelmed in the group stages. The two coaches, Vicente Del Bosque and Laurent Blanc, may need to rebalance and redirect their sides. The winner will face Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal in Donetsk on Wednesday, and he will not be forgiving.
Iker Casillas and Andres Iniesta both defended Spain's performance yesterday, eager to reassure that the dream of a third consecutive trophy was still alive. But their record in Group C, even though they won it ahead of Italy and Croatia, did not announce themselves as a team certain to fulfil their historic destiny.
It is a strange criticism to make of a reigning European and world champion side, but Spain do not seem to know their best team. They have been torn between playing a "false" centre-forward, Cesc Fabregas, or a conventional one in Fernando Torres. Fabregas started the 1-1 draw with Italy, but despite scoring was replaced by Torres for the 4-0 defeat of the Republic of Ireland. Torres kept his place against Croatia, but was replaced before the late winner.
Before Jesus Navas's goal, though, Spain looked worryingly slow, tired and predictable, like a team who had run their course, just like holders France at the 2002 World Cup. Croatia arguably had the better of the second half and nearly scored a goal which would have knocked Spain out. You wanted to see authority and ruthlessness in that third group game but from Spain there was little of either.
"The truth is that we've raised the standards so much," explained Casillas to Uefa.com yesterday. "In the last few years we've become European and world champions, and now people demand that from us again. But people shouldn't forget that it's not that easy."
Iniesta, so far looking fitter, fresher and somehow even better than ever, agreed. "All thoughts or criticisms that are constructive, and aren't hurtful, and have to be respected," said the Barcelona midfielder, who has continued to play with his characteristic mix of ethereal drift and ruthless conviction.
"We just need a bit of patience, a bit of balance and coherence, because we all want to win, of course," Iniesta said. "We all want to do well and the coach puts out the team he thinks is the best for each match. You certainly have games where things go well and others where they don't."
Whether Del Bosque will rebalance the team is unclear. There is a strong case which says that this Spain side is too pure, too refined, too artistic and too passive. Having Sergio Busquets, Xabi Alonso, Xavi, Iniesta and David Silva in the same side is beautiful, but it does not maximise the chance of success. Football is not just about passing, but running and shooting, too: the pace of Pedro or Jesus Navas or the presence of Fernando Llorente might make this team more efficient.
Blanc is another man who has not yet found the right combination. France, clearly, do not have as coherent a style of play as Spain. But Blanc made two changes between each group game, and should make more tonight. The best of Karim Benzema, Samir Nasri and Franck Ribéry has yet to come, and Blanc admitted that the recriminations after the 2-0 defeat to Sweden on Tuesday have disrupted preparations.
"There were words exchanged after the game," Blanc revealed yesterday. "There was a reaction. Some players were very angry. That is true. Certain things were said. We acted on those. People are worked up and angry after a defeat and there were raised voices. We took a bit of time to calm everyone down. It did delay us in terms of when we could start preparing for the game with Spain but you have priorities that have to be dealt with."
France, obviously, must improve if they are to challenge Spain tonight, and start playing as a team. Blanc pointed to the fact that Spain were troubled twice in the group stage. "Croatia and Italy showed a lot of solidarity, commitment and willingness against them and they are the qualities we will need to show if we are to have a chance of winning the game," said the France coach. The fact that France have shown none of those three so far cannot have evaded him.
"I don't think we had the commitment we needed to show in the game with Sweden and, if we have another off day like that, the outcome will be worse," Blanc continued. "But I should not have to motivate my players for this game. If they are not motivated to play Spain, they do not understand what it is all about."
There will surely be attacking changes tonight, with Hatem Ben Arfa unlikely to keep his place on the right wing. Yohan Cabaye will surely return to add some subtlety and calm to the midfield while Jérémy Ménez may return after being so dangerous against Ukraine.
But the most important change might be at centre-back. There was a clamour for the inclusion of Laurent Koscielny before the start of the tournament, but Blanc decided to play Philippe Mexès and Adil Rami. Mexès is now suspended so Koscielny will make his first competitive start tonight. "It is a chance for him," said Blanc. "He will be very well prepared. He was very close to getting into the starting XI, and now that will happen."
The change might bring about the stability that France need at the back. But Blanc or Del Bosque may have to re-adjust if they are to challenge not just beyond tonight but towards the trophy.
Player To Watch
Jordi Alba, Spain
Probably the least well-known of Spain's starting XI, left-back Jordi Alba had a fabulous season at Valencia. Joan Capdevila operated in that position at the previous two tournaments, but Alba's youthful enthusiasm saw him dislodge the veteran on a permanent basis after only his first cap last year.
As is customary with the reigning champions, Alba is technically superb and tricky on the ball. He is a reported target for Manchester United, but his Barcelona-based team-mates are desperate for him to move to the Nou Camp. "He is complete," Pedro said. "He can play as a winger or full-back, is quick, has a great left foot and crosses well."
Criticisms of Alba tend to focus on his defending – he can be rash in the tackle and picked up 16 yellow cards and one red last season. But the 23-year-old is more than useful as an attacking threat after chipping in with three goals and seven assists last season.
Spain v France
France manager Laurent Blanc has a fully-fit squad ahead of tonight's quarter-final. Crucially for Les Bleus, Franck Ribéry and Samir Nasri have recovered from knocks while Yohan Cabaye returns.
"[Cabaye has] become vital," Blanc said. "We saw that in the games he played. Players like him, you notice when they're not there."
Andres Iniesta, meanwhile, wants Spain to be more ruthless in possession. "We need to be aggressive and intense, create, and take our chances," he said.
Kick-off 7.45pm, Donetsk (ITV1) Ref N Rizzoli (It) Odds: Spain 4-5 Draw 5-2 France 4-1
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