The Spanish juggernaut continued cruising (as the commentators on ESPN noted: "it looked like they were only in 2nd gear") towards a berth in the finals for the second consecutive time in the European Championships, dispatching France 2-0 yesterday evening. Much thoroughly deserved praise was lavished on Xabi Alonso who celebrated his 100th cap for Spain by recording a brace and being absolutely dominant throughout the match. According to Zonal Marking, Xabi completed 97 of his 108 attempted passes, on this particular evening outshining his more celebrated midfield mates in the glare of the spotlight. Sergio Ramos was also excellent (in the fleeting moments he had to be) and should be singled-out for his performance yesterday. Spain were obviously a level beyond the French side, but still I have to question Laurent Blanc's approach. Join me after the jump.
Obviously any side in world football has to respect Spain's talent, experience and stature as reigning world and European champions, but, in my view, there is a distinction between respect and fear (and self-defeat for that matter). The buzz leading up to the match was that Blanc openly vowed to a adopt a conservative, defense-first mindset and approach the quarterfinal clash with an overtly defensive line-up and tactical plan. Some nations would have no choice but to approach a match with Spain in this matter, lacking the quality and resources to even consider another gameplan, let-alone an ambitious or open one. But France, at least on paper, did not appear to be one of those nations. Laurent Blanc's team is filled with an exciting new generation of rising stars such as Yohan Cabaye, Yann M'Vila, Samir Nasri and Real Madrid's Karim Benzema. Players that helped Les Bleus enter the tournament on a 23 match unbeaten run, and whom some favored as a darkhorse team capable of winning the entire tournament. I was waiting to see an interesting battle between sides oozing with beautiful, creative football talent, a battle that was short-circuited by Blanc at the outset and sadly never materialized. The French manager's approach seemed self-defeating and went far past caution and respect for Spain and into fear and paralysis that crippled his young team's psyche. I guess this could (and maybe should) be viewed as a subliminal commentary on the level of psychological dominance exerted by this generation of Spanish players on the rest of the world's footballing nations.
I'm a huge Benzema fan, but if we're all being honest he was very disappointing in this tournament. Samir Nasri is apparently the most pointlessly angry and aggrieved human being on planet Earth and was either dropped due to the defensive nature of the tactical approach or for his sorry, belligerent crusade against French journalists; most likely a little of both. Even conceding that neither man was exactly in top-form, Blanc still had their considerable talents at his disposal--not to mention those of Franck Ribery and others already mentioned like Cabaye. Why he decided to essentially forgo the adoption of any sort of offensive thrust, creativity or ambition in his approach was baffling, disappointing, and, quite frankly, sad.
I'm going to sign off with some words from Alou Diarra, who openly questioned his country's approach to yesterday's match, saying:
"Well, we should obviously consider who were we playing against, a team that is very good at attacking so we needed to be stronger at the back but without forgetting that we needed to attack as well. We needed to find that balance and we didn't do it in the end. It's disappointing to be out of the Euros, we played against a team which was better than us, individually and collectively. It's still a shame because I feel that in the second half there was still a lot to play for and to pose them problems but that's how it goes sometimes."
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