Well, France it is. The real knockout stages of the tournament start on Thursday, but Spain will have to wait until Saturday to, according to Del Bosque, reacquaint themselves with their best game. “The fact that a draw against Croatia was a good result for us didn’t help, we lost focus and freshness”, he said after the Spaniards’ tough victory in Gdansk.
At first sight, the precedents against our northern neighbours could deceive some shallow analysis: out of 30 matches played since 1922, Spain have won 13, drawn 6 and lost 11, including a authoritative 2-0 win in Paris a couple of years ago. However, when we select the official matches, France have won five of six, a Euro96 1-1 draw being the only ‘positive’ result for the Spaniards. To make the point clearer, Spain have never defeated the French in any official tournament.
I do remember three of those losses quite vividly. First, Spain’s defeat in the final of Euro84 – yes, I am that old. That Spanish team, a cohesive but not very talented unit, made the most of their limited skills and reached the tournament final, only to witness Arconada’s blunder in horror (by the way, what a bogus call). The goalie’s error after an otherwise almost perfect competition cost Spain the title, and unfairly taints his legacy to this day. The Basque was an extraordinary goalkeeper indeed.
The second of those losses takes us to another Spanish icon that never succeeded with the national team. At Euro 2000, with France leading 2-1, Raúl missed a last-minute penalty that would have sent the match into extra-time. Mendieta, the usual penalty taker, had been replaced ten minutes earlier and watched the whole thing from the bench. France would go on to win the tournament, led by Zinedine Zidane at his footballing apex.
Finally, France also defeated Spain back in WC06, in what was my first ever live WC match. In a beautiful but frustrating night in Hannover, the French proved they knew how to compete better than the Spaniards, and made the most of Spain’s naivety to reach the quarter-finals. Spain took an early lead, but weren’t able to manage the match, just like Luis Aragonés himself admitted afterwards. Ribery, Zidane and Henry took care of matters and ended up reaching the final of the tournament.
But that is now history; Zidane has retired and Spain need to look forward. The current managing team know France better than other European sides, given that Blanc’s Bleus will compete with Spain as early as October for a spot in same qualifying group for WC14. Toni Grande, Del Bosque’s right hand, had already been scrutinizing the French before this Euro started, so at least Spain know who they’ll be facing on Saturday.
Before the tournament started, France seemed like a decent dark horse to put some cash on. With Germany, Holland and Spain getting most of the attention from media, fans and gamblers, France offered great value. At least on paper, any team with a great pair of forwards such as Franck Ribery and Karim Benzema, competent creative support from Samir Nasri and Yohan Cabaye, a fantastic goalie in Hugo Lloris and a consistent back four with two attacking fullbacks – Debuchy and Clichy – and two strong centre-backs – Mexes and Valencia’s Rami – could rightfully aspire to win the whole thing, or at least reach the semi-finals.
Not much of that has materialised so far. Ribery and Benzema remain scoreless after three matches, defensive midfielders Alou Diarra and Yann M’Vila have shown their limitations to deliver the ball to their forwards in optimal conditions, and the trigger-happy fullbacks presented opponents with some defensive clumsiness more often than expected. France has shown three faces so far: cautious against England, ambitious vs the Ukraine and apathetic vs Sweden. It has been enough to reach the knockout stages, but now they’ll need to improve in order to defeat the World Champions.
On the Spanish front, things look calm after Tuesday’s press conference. Del Bosque, again the balanced seaman in the midst of the storm, decided to give fans and journos some context, and reminded us all that, up to 2008, Spain couldn’t compete with the top sides. ‘Now the other countries celebrate like crazy when they make it to the quarter-finals, and our boys quickly leave for the dressing room, focused and business-like’.
Yes, the expectations have changed, but the Spanish habit of finding points to criticise even in their most successful representatives hasn’t. Most of us can’t shake off the feeling that the Marquis of Del Bosque could do better with the talent at his disposal, but his well-mannered counter – ‘This is a Euro, not a 38-match league. You can’t play both competitions in the same manner’ – sounds sensible in perspective.
His press conference had the effect Del Bosque intended: most of the press now look on board with the team and the coach, although, as you can imagine, we’re just on ‘false nine’ line-up away from another national crisis. And talking about line-ups, my contacts in the Ukraine keep talking about a 4-2-3-1 with Torres up front once again. In any case, we’ll have more data on that as more training sessions happen. Stay tuned.