Xabi fires Spain into semis

Exemplary performance from Real midfielder sets up meeting with Ronaldo’s Portugal

Madrid -
Spanish midfielder Xabi Alonso celebrates after scoring against France.
Spanish midfielder Xabi Alonso celebrates after scoring against France.FRANCK FIFE (AFP)

In terms of spectacle, it was not a Euro quarterfinal to savor, but the result for Vicente del Bosque’s team and for Xabi Alonso in particular certainly was. Spain cruised to a controlled 2-0 victory over France in Donetsk on Saturday night to move one step closer to a historic third consecutive major title.

Alonso, playing his 100th game in a Spanish shirt, scored both goals in what was, incredibly, La Roja’s first ever win against France in a competitive match, setting up a semifinal meeting with Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal in Donetsk on Wednesday.

The Real Madrid midfielder’s first came from the left wing after 18 minutes as Andrés Iniesta put through a sprinting Jordi Alba. As the chasing Mathieu Debuchy fell, the Valencia left back looked up to see Cesc Fàbregas drawing the French defenders to the near post and Alonso rushing into acres of space. Smashing the cross down with his forehead, the strike bounced past Hugo Lloris into the left corner of the net.

As France coach Laurent Blanc — who, identifying the threat of Iniesta and Alba, had shored up his right wing with Debuchy and Anthony Réveillère — saw his game plan go out the window, Spain consolidated its governance. But with Del Bosque having started with Fernando Torres on the bench and Fàbregas in the false 9 role for the first time since the opener against Italy, opportunities to extend its lead were far from forthcoming.

However, with France so muted going forward they didn’t need to be. The French may not have bombed like the Dutch in this tournament, but with a squad boasting the attacking verve of Karim Benzema, Franck Ribery and Samir Nasri, they have hardly lived up to the sum of their talented parts. A Yohan Cabaye free kick in the first half was one of the few times Iker Casillas was troubled and the match looked to be heading to finish 1-0 until Réveillère brought down substitute Pedro in the area in the 91st minute and Alonso stepped up to convert from the spot.

Alonso was no less exemplary in the center of the field, especially in the second half as France stepped up the pressure. He closed spaces, hunted down goal kicks, and played pass after pass, always with the aim of maintaining the midfield merry-go-round of possession. And when necessary, he also stepped back among the central defenders to help out. The stats bear out the effort: Alonso finished the match as the player with the highest number of touches (109) and completed passes (98).

“I am very happy with all that, but the main thing was getting through to the semifinals,” said the former Liverpool player after swapping shirts with his Real teammate Benzema. “Without having too many chances, we controlled the game. We knew it was going to be difficult.”

Asked whether the result put an end to the controversy over the benefits of playing without a number 9, Del Bosque remained pragmatic. “With an out-and-out forward we might have more depth, but Cesc gives us a lot of continuity in the game [...] We wanted to have that domination of the ball and the game. [...] In fact, I think the result is fair because they practically didn’t have any goal-scoring options. In that sense we controlled the match. In these tournaments the matches are usually very tense and I think we had the necessary to experience to handle it.”

The Spain coach expressed concern about his players’ tiredness heading into Wednesday’s semifinal, but Alonso was unfazed by the match-up against in-form Real teammate Cristiano Ronaldo. “We already know Cristiano; it’s no surprise because what he is doing here is what he has been doing all year. But we have to focus on ourselves and play a match as good as this one or better,” he said.

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