A week of negative news on the financial front could have easily diverted the Spaniards’ attention from the so far successful, but somewhat disappointing, performance of their football team. But that isn't how this country works.
Some of you may remember that right before the tournament started most of Spain, led by President Mariano Rajoy, expected the national team to present the kingdom with a handful of unforgettable football moments that would allow them to escape momentarily from the current financial climate.
Events in Poland/Ukaine haven't been everything they have expected so far, so the focus has merely shifted. Now all the country speaks about at the moment is whether boss Vicente del Bosque should start with one striker - each fan has their own candidate - or none, while any newspaper headlines containing words like ‘bail-out’ or ‘five-year bonds at record yield’ feel like some nagging annoyance that shouldn’t distract the Spanish people’s focus from the more pressing football matters.
Certainly the absent-mindedness objective has been fully accomplished, as team and their coach have managed to capture the attention of the whole country. However, the fact that - except from their victory over the Republic of Ireland - their performance hasn’t delivered the high-tempo, goal glut many expected has disappointed both inside and outside of the country.
“Spain were unrecognisable during these three matches”, Bernd Schuster after the group stage finished; the former Real Madrid manager accurately summarising the vast majority of Spain’s opinion about the squad. “We’ve gone from poor to rich too fast, and we don’t know yet the value of what we have achieved”, countered Del Bosque in a clear-headed press conference on Tuesday.
Two days after the victory over Croatia, the Spanish coach took a couple of steps back, reminded fans and media of who this country was in world football just five years ago, and finished with a clear statement: “We shouldn’t have any doubts about our approach”. He did fail to clarify whether he was referring to the one striker or the 4-6-0 strikerless approach…
If Spain needed motivation to recover their top form, France look like the perfect candidates. The Spaniards haven’t been able to beat them in an official tournament – five defeats and one draw in six matches – therefore the element of challenge already exists. This same generation of players suffered Spain’s last official defeat against the French, a 3-1 comeback loss in World Cup 2006. Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Xabi Alonso, Xavi Hernandez, Cesc Fabregas and Fernando Torres started for Spain in that match, and remember well the sobering ‘How to compete in a real tournament’ lesson that Zidane and co. taught them six years ago.
If those weren’t enough elements for the Spaniards to find their inspiration, the Spanish media have reminded every living being that French TV station Canal+ aired a provocative sketch on ‘The Puppets’ show, in which top Spanish athletes – including Rafael Nadal, Fernando Alonso and even some national team players – were portrayed like regular users of performance-enhancing substances in various occasions this and last year.
But motivation alone might not solve Del Bosque’s tactical hesitance, an unprecedented phenomenon since he took over the national team in 2008. For some reason, Spain’s coach seems to favour the false nine formation, and believes that Cesc Fabregas’ buoyant form needs to be rewarded with starts. However, he had to stick with Torres against Croatia after El Nino scored twice in his start against Ireland.
Which formation will he use against the French? Del Bosque keeps everyone guessing, and although one suspects he’s not 100% sure either – on Friday he recognised that “We do have an internal debate regarding our starting XI vs France” – the false nine option seems the most likely one after Spain’s last two training sessions.
Striker or no striker, you don’t need to be Bernd Schuster to perceive that in both tactical dispositions the Spaniards lack width and failed to create space in their previous matches, especially before pure winger Jesus Navas entered the pitch. Both full-backs, Alvaro Arbeloa and Jordi Alba, have been well below expectations so far and haven’t supported the team’s attacks well, therefore Spain’s passing game has become narrow and predictable despite, or probably because of, the excess of excellent passers in the line-up.
France haven’t looked their best either, and ironically enough have to thank the English for their progress to the knockout stages of the tournament. At the beginning of the tournament, boss Laurent Blanc stated that he trusted Philippe Mexes and Adil Rami to protect Hugo Lloris’ goal as well as to start the offensive flow with some skill. However, the pair didn’t perform as expected, and now Mexes’ suspension means that Blanc needs to replace him with Laurent Koscielny, who’s never played side-by-side with Rami. Spanish manager Rafael Benitez, working during the Euros as a radio pundit, highlighted this weakness by pointing out that France’s ‘hesitant and insufficiently coordinated defence’ could become Spain’s biggest opportunity to make it to the semi-finals.
But the French have more urgent things to worry about. Their defeat against Sweden triggered a series of dressing-room arguments that brought to memory the unfortunate events from South Africa in 2010. French journal L’Equipe documented fights between Samir Nasri and Alou Diarra, and Ben Arfa’s threat to leave the squad in the middle of the tournament after a tough discussion with the coach. Hardly the right environment needed to face the world champions.
In any case, France’s intimidating factor is still there. “France have much more power than what they’ve shown so far”, says Paco Jimenez, Del Bosque’s head scout. The squad possess the required physicality to intimidate Spain’s diminutive midfield, while it’s safe to say that Ribery and Benzema, scoreless so far, wouldn’t like to go back home without leaving their mark on the tournament.
Even though neither side arrive at the top of their form, this intriguing matchup has all the potential to become a classic. According to former player Bixente Lizarazu, a knowledgeable observer of both countries, “in order to win, France have to play at 120%, while Spain could be ok with 80%”. Whatever the outcome, in these days of financial unrest it’s great to realise that, thanks to football, we can look at headlines with percentages and false numbers (nine) and not think immediately of public debt.© ESPN