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What I Learned From Watching Day 15 of The Euros 2012, Quarterfinal No. 3

June 24, 2012

In a match that held few surprises, Spain marched on against a feckless France side that only confirmed doubts about their chemistry and potential.  Here’s what else I saw:

  • Making his 100th appearance for his national side, Xabi Alonso must have seen some weakness about Hugo Lloris’ keeping when in the 8th minute he launched a long chip from the right midfield towards Lloris’ goal mouth from about 55 meters that had Lloris backpedaling to catch it.  Thought little of it at the time watching, but as it turns out, Alonso may have even had the French ‘keeper pegged before the match. It was Alonso’s perfectly placed header from the same right side to the opposite post in the 19th minute that put the Spanish ahead to stay. In the 51st minute he fired a rocket over the bar from 35 meters out that caught Lloris a half-step behind, and, as with header goal, the Real Madrid midfielder completely bamboozled Lloris on his penalty kick in the 91st minute, adding insult to injury.  In between all that, Spain posed the bigger threat on goal throughout and never looked like the match would get away from them, winning 2-0 and setting up a tasty “Battle of Iberia” against Portugal in Euro 2012’s first semifinal June 27.
  • I thought going back to the “False No. 9”, or the 4-6-0 formation, or whatever you want to call it, was curious at best. It’s not that the Sweathog Fabregas doesn’t deserve to start, he’s certainly a vital cog to Spain’s imagination in the midfield along with Xavi, David Silva and Andres Iniesta, and I’m not sure Manager Vicente Del Bosque should sit any of them.  If anything, next to the lack of a top striker making pressuring runs deep into the opposing backline, what has troubled me about using six midfielders is the reliance on both Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets in central midfield seems a bit defensive and somewhat redundant.  Maybe that’s a tacit admission that Spain’s backline is less than optimal without Carles Puyol, having to employ an out-of-position Sergio Ramos and an out-of-form Gerard Pique as the central tandem (although Spain now has three clean sheets in a row). Spain may be served better by sitting either Alonso or Sergio Busquets –- tough call there, Busquets has the greater familiarity with his Barca line mates Xavi, Iniesta and Fabregas, but to me Alonso is more versatile, a punishing defender and ballwinner as well as someone finishing capability, as we saw today – and using any of their strikers, a fit and focused El Niño is optimal, but Fernando Llorente and Alvaro Negredo are more than capable as well in a more balanced attack.  After the goal, the best Spain looked was when El Niño came in the 67th minute for Fabregas, lending further credence to scrapping the striker-less lineup. Then again, who am I, who is anyone to say they should do differently? Spain is in the semifinals, getting stronger by the game and living up to the maxim that in order to become the Champ, you are going to have to beat the Champ.
  • France meanwhile followed their “What? Was? That?!?” descent to a callow exit from Euro 2012, showing too much respect to Spain in making several lineup changes that again failed to inspire and tactical decisions that were part of its undoing. Les Bleus rarely tested the Spanish goal (4 shots, only 1 on goal) even though they probably saw more of the ball than most observers – including French Manager Laurent Blanc – expected they would (45% of the possession). Blanc’s decision to funnel their attack through Franck Ribery and Karim Benzema on their left side of the field resulted in conceding that side on defense, where Spain had acres of space to torment their enablers (which was ironic, since Spain’s goal in the run of play came from an attack by Jordi Alba down the opposite flank, maybe the result of the French readjusting to their original overcompensation of starting two right backs). The only times France actually looked dangerous came in the 32nd minute when Johan Cabaye’s free kick was calmly deflected over the bar by San Iker, who then bobbled the subsequent corner kick before grabbing it, and seconds later France sent three consecutive crosses into Spain’s box that were all easily defended (the last one from Ribery scooped up by San Iker), while in the 71st minute San Iker bobbled another low Ribery cross just inside his goal box before covering it.  Maybe one can consider France’s brief rush between the 60th and 64th minutes as presenting “danger”, creating two of their four shots, neither of which had to be saved; At most, that’s six minutes out of 90-plus that the French were credibly engaged, not nearly enough against the reigning Best Team in The World. I’d make a reference incorporating the words “French” and “surrender” at this point, but it’s bad form to kick someone when they’re down (plus, I’ve already been beaten to the punch by someone at ESPN).
  • I keep flip-flopping on who should win between England and Italy. Three days ago I had England, two days ago I had Italy, and yesterday I had England again. On one hand, I think this England squad benefited from flying under the radar, and now that they’re in the knockout stage, the English media have gone to their usual full boil on how the Three Lions could, should and would beat Italy, thereby removing the protective veil of low expectations. On the other, the return of Wayne Rooney has buttressed an English attack that has developed more options and scored goals in more ways than expected. I think Italy has more quality and reliability in their starting XI, and the most creative midfield force of the two teams in Andrea Pirlo (although Stephen Gerrard has been and could again be quite the catalyst for England). I also think Italy’s strength on set pieces – scoring 3 of their 4 total goals off set pieces – matches up well with England’s weakness in defending set pieces – England conceding 2 of their 3 goal allowed off such plays. I’m leaning back towards Italy by the slimmest of margins, although much of that depends on how aggressive a formation Manager Cesare Prandelli deploys as well as who he employs in it. Italian defensive stalwart Giorgio Cheilini looks like he stepped out of the 1982 World Cup Champion Italy’s team picture (only with less hair), and the rugged defender has an equally old-school style of play to him that will be desperately missed if as expected he is unable to go against England. Starting Mario Balotelli up top would also signal that the Forza Azzurri will confidently put their best foot forward, while starting James Milner instead of Theo Walcott would limit England’s forward enterprise.

Up Next: Sunday June 24 (today), the last berth in the Euro Final Four is determined when England meets Italy in Kiev, first kick at 11:45AM PST.

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