DONETSK, Ukraine -- Legendary French icon Zinedine Zidane turned 40 on Saturday. He celebrated with an appearance on French radio in which he made a birthday wish that France would play with ambition. "We've got the players, we've got the manager,” he declared. “What we need is some folie [madness].”
Not all birthday wishes come true. What Zidane received was a lineup that L’Equipe described as "ultra-defensive." Manager Laurent Blanc used five midfielders, one of whom, Mathieu Debuchy, is a right back. Samir Nasri, rumored to be at the center of the team’s Gallic midweek bickering, was relegated to the bench.
France’s group-stage progress had been based on a passing game -- it had completed the second-most passes in the tournament, behind only Spain. But so visceral was its fear of the defending Euro champion that the French chose to rip up their game plan, preferring to play reactive football instead – and the result, a 2-0 loss to Spain, sent them home in disappointing fashion.
By fielding just two potent goal scorers, Karim Benzema and Franck Ribery, Blanc was making his intentions clear. France would aim to hold on tight for as long as possible and attempt to keep the game close.
For its part, Spain returned to its strikerless format with Cesc Fabregas reprising the role of the false nine, with Fernando Torres on the bench. When the game kicked off, Benzema was the only recognized striker on the field, and he hadn’t scored all tournament.
With lineups like this, Spain began very much as expected, rolling possession around at will like a ball bearing in a maze as the French were forced to give chase. On the rare occasion France touched the ball, it lumped it forward in panic toward Benzema’s general direction.
In the 19th minute, Andres Iniesta slipped the ball to Jordi Alba, who made a run inside Debuchy. He, in turn, was left sprawling in Alba’s wake, and the Spaniard had all the time in the world to look up and pick out Xabi Alonso on the far post. Alonso nodded the floated cross smartly past a helpless Hugo Lloris to mark his 100th cap with a goal. So much for hanging on. Against Spain, the number of defenders you stack on the field is not as important as their organization, and France was all over the shop.
Realizing they had nothing to lose, the French began to push Yohan Cabaye forward to support Ribery and the eager but besieged Benzema. For all of its modest ambition, Spain pressed furiously to break up play, forcing the French to adopt a manic passing style that was well-intended yet ineffective.
Set pieces began to look like France’s best route to a goal. In the 31st minute, Sergio Ramos gave Benzema a crafty elbow, and Cabaye drove the resulting free kick toward Iker Casillas’ top left-hand corner. But the Spanish captain, who had little to do 'til that point, was able to fingertip the ball away.
The second half began in a strangely atmosphere-less style. Even the small pocket of Spanish fans stopped cheering its team’s tiny passes, which served like a sleeper hold on the game, running down the clock. When the French recovered possession, Ribery, Benzema and Debuchy all took turns to run at the Spaniards, only to run out of ideas once they approached the edge of the box, with Ribery looking particularly peripheral.
Both teams rang in the substitutions in an attempt to shake the game out of its lethargy. Debuchy and Florent Malouda were replaced by the roundly jeered Nasri and Jeremy Menez. Spain exchanged David Silva for Pedro and a disappointed Fabregas for Torres. Their impact was immediate. First Pedro rolled a ball into the path of Torres, forcing Laurent Koscielny to snuff out the danger with a sliding tackle. Then Ribery wriggled free on the left, firing a similar ball toward Menez, only for Casillas to bravely smother the ball.
Spain played like a team that could score at any time, and wrapped up the game in the 90th minute when Alonso converted a penalty after Pedro was felled in the box. Yet again, the Spanish scored a late goal, a testament to how mentally and physically exhausting it is for opponents to play them.
Before the game, Blanc described Spain as being "ahead" of France in terms of its development. He cut a bewildered figure at the final whistle, suggesting the gap was bigger than even he had imagined. France departs Euro 2012, its consolation prize knowing it did not humiliate itself with a repeat of the mutinous antics at the 2010 World Cup.
Spain moves on to face Portugal in Wednesday night’s marquee all-Iberian semifinal, and though many suggest La Roja’s technical mastery is boring on the eye, Sky Sports pundit Guillem Balague made the observation that at this stage of the competition, big-game experience shows. Ominously, the players on the Spanish bench have won more trophies than every other squad in the tournament.
Roger Bennett is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @rogbennett.