x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Euro 2012: How to end the reign of Spain

The defending champions are not unbeatable, believes Paul Radley, and our reporter shares his plan for toppling Vicente del Bosque’s men, using any means possible

Spain beat France in Saturday night’s quarter-final with no striker. Xabi Alonso, the midfielder, right, scored the first goal with a header and his, and his country’s, second from the penalty spot. They now face their Iberian neighbours, Portugal, in the semi-final on Wednesday night.
Spain beat France in Saturday night’s quarter-final with no striker. Xabi Alonso, the midfielder, right, scored the first goal with a header and his, and his country’s, second from the penalty spot. They now face their Iberian neighbours, Portugal, in the semi-final on Wednesday night.

Spain's march towards a third major title in succession has been inexorable. They were so superior to France in their quarter-final that the crowd at the Donbass Arena jeered them at one point for toying too much with their opposition.

However, for most of that match the defending champions held only a precarious one-goal lead.

Ahead of a last-four meeting with their neighbours from Portugal, there were clues that the Spaniards might not be quite the irresistible force they are supposed to be. Here are five keys to unseating the champions.

A wing and a player

All this hypnotising inter-passing is just a cunning ruse. It is like the three-card trick: the eyes see what the mind wants them to.

In actual fact, while the sleight of foot is unfolding in the middle, Spain's brilliant full-backs are sneaking up the sides, which is when all the damage starts happening.

Laurent Blanc, the France coach, thought he had stifled this by picking two right-backs to counter the threat of Jordi Alba and Andres Iniesta on Spain's left flank. He was crestfallen when his master plan failed.

His was a flawed concept. It may have seemed clever, but all it meant was that Alba had one less thing to worry about, namely the defensive side of being a full-back. Mathieu Debuchy, France's reinforcement right-back, was never going to threaten.

This is where Portugal can thrive in the semi-final, as their two best players are the wingers Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani.

Furthermore, their own full-backs, Joao Pereira and Fabio Coentrao, have been exceptional in this competition so far. Alba, and Alvaro Arbeloa on the other flank, should have their hands full.

False 9 is just gluttony

Vicente del Bosque's reasoning for playing an extra midfielder, Cesc Fabregas, instead of a proper forward, Fernando Torres, against France was so they could secure more possession. How much of the stuff do they need?

Of course, playing 6,000 passes and having 98 per cent of possession looks good on the statistics panel. But Spain must have the lowest shots per pass and goals per pass ratios in the history of football.

They may be consumed by their own possession gluttony if they are not careful.

"I don't think there is an absolute truth," Del Bosque, their phlegmatic manager, said when asked if the win over France was the final rebuke for doubters of the "false 9" system.

"Of course, we are not 100 per cent sure about it. It is hard to say something is absolutely true."

If Torres or Fernando Llorente are absent from the Spain line-up, their opponents should be happy. Their threat is lessened by the lack of a forward.

Rile them

This is not as fail-safe a tactic as it once was, given referees have become officious policemen - literally, in Howard Webb's case - who barely allow tackling, let alone anything more aggressive.

However, Spain's wonderful footballers are not physically suited to the rough stuff. Underhanded as it may be, a little bit of cynicism could help against them, so long as you do not totally take your eye off the ball, a la Holland in the World Cup final.

As gorgeous as he is, you would still want Sergio Ramos on your side in a fight. Other than that, where are the tough guys in the Spain team?

Gerard Pique is big, but he would not want Shakira going off him by getting any scars on that face of his. Sergio Busquets sometimes comes across as a faux enforcer, but he is too skinny to be scary.

Yet there is a volatile underbelly among them, as evidenced by the combustible clasicos between Real Madrid and Barcelona last season. Scratch it.

They are tiring

If success guarantees one thing, it is that you are going to play lots of matches. Real Madrid and Barcelona, who provide the core of players for the Spain team, played 132 matches combined last season.

There is no let-up with the national team, either. Spain play every match at every tournament because they are so good.

Everyone wants a piece of them for friendly fixtures, and the football federation want to make hay while the sun is shining.

The workload is starting to show. Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez, the dynamic duo for club and country, both betrayed signs of fatigue against France.

The schedule of this tournament has also counted against them. Portugal have been handed a substantial advantage by playing their quarter-final two days earlier. The extra rest should help.

Stick to what you know

It seems ludicrous that coaches choose totally to change their style just for one game against Spain.

It usually ends up with players doing uncharacteristic things in areas of the field they are unaccustomed to seeing - like when Debuchy was double-parked with the other right-back, Anthony Reveillere, in the France-Spain game.

France were undefeated in 23 games before their pool-stage loss to Sweden, which suggests they were not such a bad team in their own right.

"I don't think we have any shame in saying they are a better side than us," Blanc said after the match against Spain.

Absolutely not, but why not try giving them a game on even terms rather than paying so much reverence and wholly changing the perspective of your own team?

pradley@thenational.ae

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