Critics See Flaws in Spain’s Art
Xabi Alonso scored both goals in Spain’s 2-0 win over France. Spain will play Portugal in the semifinals.
By JERÉ LONGMAN
Published: June 23, 2012
A consensus has formed at Euro 2012. Germany is the team to beat. Spain cannot decide on a lineup. It seems unsettled, if hardly unnerved. This is what happens when people are no longer content with beauty and now expect perfection.
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Slight exasperation has crept into the voices of the Spanish players. Are we allowed no mistakes? Who is flawless all the time? Trust us, Andrés Iniesta said recently. After all, Spain had reached the quarterfinals by scoring the most goals in the tournament and allowing the fewest.
With a 2-0 victory Saturday over France in Donetsk, Ukraine, Spain advanced to the semifinals to face Portugal on Wednesday. La Furia Roja, as Spain is known, can become the first team to hold two European titles and the World Cup title at the same time. And if it has not always been superior at Euro 2012, it must still be considered the favorite until an opponent, not the pundits, determines otherwise.
“In the past, we suffered and were out,” Iniesta told reporters the other day. “Now, we suffer and we win. We have made the exceptional into something routine, which means winning is the norm.”
Winning has become so routine that only dominance will satisfy Spain’s critics. The slightest lapse becomes magnified into vulnerability. It is unfair, of course, but understandable and perhaps inevitable.
This is what happens when a team achieves such consistent success that it gains consideration as the best ever , with its geometric passing and underappreciated and feverish desire to recover the ball when possession is lost. Everything becomes magnified and overheated. Competence is no longer permitted, only supremacy.
Unlike France, though, whose unity fractured again as it had disastrously at the 2010 World Cup, the team splintering into individual egos after a loss to Sweden last week, Spain has calmly held together. Its lineup is filled with eternal rivals from Barcelona and Real Madrid, but these enemies from La Liga understand when it is time to be professional friends.
“Each of us played our own way during the season, and now we have a different goal,” Madrid defender Sergio Ramos said before the match. “The objective of the team is clear. We want to win.”
Against France, Vicente del Bosque, Spain’s coach, again chose a lineup with six midfielders and no forwards, as he had done in a 1-1 draw with Italy, selecting Cesc Fàbregas over Fernando Torres. And he stayed with his so-called double-pivot approach, using Xabi Alonso, who scored Spain’s goals Saturday, and Sergio Busquets as holding midfielders.
Some have faulted del Bosque as being too conservative, not sufficiently committed to the attack. But Alonso’s two goals on Saturday, in his 100th international appearance, will dampen the skepticism for the moment. Sure, del Bosque has admitted, even he has doubts about his lineup, because he has 23 capable players at his disposal. But he has decided that certainty is overrated.
“It would be bad to be sure of everything,” he said.
Attempting to contain Iniesta’s brilliant passing and movement on Spain’s left flank, France pushed its lines high and moved right back Mathieu Debuchy into midfield. Anthony Réveillère moved into Debuchy’s usual spot. Laurent Blanc, France’s coach, had spoken of the risks of playing to an opponent’s strength instead of playing to Les Bleus’ own advantages, but in this case he apparently felt he had no choice.
“The problem is that Spain have the ball 65 or 70 percent of the time and they won’t give it back to you,” Blanc had said before the match.
The key for France’s defense was to remain focused and compact, especially in the first 15 to 20 minutes, Blanc said. Otherwise, he said ominously and, as it turns out, prophetically, “you risk getting punished.”
Debuchy did not seem comfortable early, and after France clotted the middle of the field, Spain found room on the wings. In the 19th minute, Iniesta alertly and precisely put the ball through to Jordi Alba on an overlapping run down the left flank. Alba eluded Debuchy and made a superb cross to Alonso, who was unmarked and struck a powerful header to give Spain the lead.
“We knew this was the most important match and we played very well,” Alonso told reporters. “Scoring the early goal really made things easier.”
In added time, the substitute Pedro Rodríguez was taken down in the area, and Alonso drove home the penalty kick. Spain had another victory, though there would surely be some nitpicking.
“I’d ask the fans to stay calm,” Iniesta said the other day. “Everyone thinks they know better than the coach, but I think we’ve done pretty well so far.”