Maybe there is hope yet for England. A team running in quicksand, beset by critics, at war with itself and bemused by its coach, can come good. France did so last night, suddenly, thrillingly, purposefully.
The generational split which has been a faultline running through the squad and destabilising it appeared healed as Frank Ribery, the standard bearer for the future, combined with Zinedine Zidane and Patrick Vieira, of the old guard, to launch France into the last eight. There they will meet Brazil in a repeat of the 1998 final.
Zinedine Zidane, the man who encapsulates that great team, scored twice that heady Paris night. Last night he scored again, capping a vintage performance which mocked the scorn his 34-year-old birth certificate has evoked. After Ribery, set up by Vieira, had cancelled out David Villa's 28th-minute penalty, Zidane delivered the free-kick from which Vieira, who himself reprised the commanding form of his Highbury years, scored. In injury time, Zidane added a third, a cruel final twist for a Spanish side which contributed fully to a contest of high class.
At times it was less a football match than a geometry lesson as both sides found unexpected angles for their passing, testing the anticipation and wit of some of the game's most perceptive defenders. Spain, so expansive early in the tournament, played deliberately narrow. Raul's inclusion at the expense of Luis Garcia sought to give Spain a numbers advantage in the crucial channel between centre-circle and penalty box but it cost them width. It was left to the full-backs to provide that. They did their best but too often Xavi, or Cesc Fabregas, would look wide, then turn inside.
The French took a different approach with a five-man midfield. As anticipated David Trezeguet was replaced by Zidane on the captain's return from suspension, a move which brought Les Bleus' average age back up to 30 with their central midfield trio possessing a combined 97 years. Their Spanish counterparts totalled 69 years with Xavi the eldest at 26. It was, however, one of the cooler evenings in this sweltering World Cup and Zidane and Vieira showed few signs of ossification.
Aside from a free-kick Mariano Pernia dipped just over, it was the French, watched by their president, Jacques Chirac, who began the brighter. Henry and Zidane both threatened then combined for a chance either Ribery or Vieira might have turned in.
Spain, who had controlled possession but struggled to fashion clear chances, were then given a hand. Xabi Alonso played a half-cleared corner into Pablo Ibanez. He was a centre-half, going away from goal, but Lilian Thuram blundered into the back of him. Villa converted Spain's third successful penalty in four games.
The goal added spark and spice but did not affect the pattern of Spanish passing interspersed with French attempts to spring the offside trap. Four minutes from the break one of these counter-attacks brought reward. Ribery played a one-two with Vieira, went round Iker Casillas, and scored his first international goal.
When the French began the second period the way they finished the first, with Casillas having to make an acrobatic save to deny Florent Maloudra after Zidane released him, Luis Aragones acted. Off came the goalscorer, Villa, and captain, Raul. On came two wide men, Luis Garcia and Joaquin. But the best wingplay came from Ribery who cut past Pernia to the byline and delivered a cross which just eluded conversion.
Aragones turned to his bench again and Xavi was withdrawn. Yet the next activity involved Aragones himself as Roberto Rossetti, who took an hour to administer his first booking, lost patience with the 67-year-old's complaints and ordered him to sit down in the dug-out.
The French then laid claim to the tie. Carles Puyol, beaten for pace, balked Henry in the chest. The Arsenal player made a meal of the offence, clutching his face, but it was a foul, and a free-kick was rightly awarded. Zidane floated it in, Xabi Alonso inadvertently flicked on, and Vieira headed in at the far post off Sergio Ramos. In injury time, Zidane broke free to leave Spain's 25-match unbeaten run in tatters.Reuse content