France vs Spain | Tuesday 26 March | Saint-Denis | 22:00
The complexion of this group has undergone a seismic shift following Friday night’s shock result in Madrid, that saw Spain held to a draw by basement dwelling Finland. The result epitomized the problem that Spain has created for itself as a result of their domination of world football in recent years. Teams are acutely aware of their general inability to compete with the intricate passing networks that Vicente del Bosque’s team espouses, and thus the bus is not so much parked as it is left in the scrapyard to rust for eternity. France, on the other hand, have taken pole position in the group after a convincing win over the pragmatic Georgians; setting up a fascinating showdown that defies normative conventions.
To Win (90mins)
We all remember France’s somewhat absurdist participation at the 2010 Fifa World Cup. Shakespearean power struggles rocked the French to their core, their historic capacity for revolution manifested on the grandest stage. Few would have envied Didier Deschamps’ task in trying to rebuild the team to their former glory. However, much like his unfussy command of the central midfield, Deschamps has managed to orchestrate somewhat of a miracle in regards to the fortune of the national side, and Spain have played their part in the narrative of France’s reconstruction.
France were much improved at last year’s Euros, being knocked out in the quarter-final stage by the eventual champions, Spain. The team took that momentum further, continuously integrating new players into the national fold. They were the team that managed to break the record breaking winning streak of the Spanish team in the first meeting between these sides in the group, with a gritty 1-1 draw. France seem to have emerged from a seemingly disparate situation into a cohesive unit emboldened with national pride. Their performance the other night saw some of their oft maligned stars come into prominence, with Giroud and Ribery offering plenty of menace. They also managed to protect players in danger of a booking whilst blooding the likes of Varane and Pogba.
Laurent Koscielny will most likely return to the fold in this game, possibly partnering Varane who had a solid debut. Jeremy Menez came on in the second half and will likely start in this game in support of Giroud and Ribery. Hugo Lloris will provide a really settled platform for the French while Evra offers invaluable experience at left fullback. The injury to Debuchy is somewhat of a blow to the side, but Deschamps will know that his side only needs a draw in this game to grab full initiative in the group. Their counter-attacking style is perfectly suited to the Spanish game of possession, in a game that could act as an intriguing precursor to the PSG-Barcelona Champions League quarter-final clash. But you cannot discount the World Champions. Many thought that Barcelona were damned against AC Milan, the past masters of counter-attacking football. But we all know how that turned out.
Spain seem to be in a paradoxical position to that of the French. The image of Alvaro Arbeloa and Gerard Pique arguing during the draw against Finland would indicate that there is the faint hint of fracture in the camp of the World and European champions. The perpetuation of the Madrid-Barcelona rivalry in recent years cannot help the unity of the team when things are not working out. Sceptics may be tempted into saying that the internal combustion characterised by France in recent years has begun to set in on this most successful crop of international talent. However, France will be pressured to offer something in Paris and this could give Spain the opportunity to get behind enemy lines.
Let’s be honest, the Spanish defence looks extremely vulnerable. Pique has been a shadow of his former self for club and country while Sergio Ramos is a ticking time bomb in the heart of defence. The creative powers of Iniesta, Silva and Cazorla will be greatly supplemented by runs in behind the defence. Recently the complexity of their interplay has been analogous to a protracted Vaudeville, lacking in real substance rooted in front of the backline of their opponents. I feel that Cazorla may miss out to the slightly more direct Pedro, whose ability to run creative channels could be vital to breaking France down.
David Villa offers a conundrum for del Bosque. Well, he is Spain’s all-time top scorer but he has lacked fluidity for Barcelona as well as his country, and Del Bosque may be tempted to reshuffle his pack. He could turn to Negredo, or as I would suggest could he turn to the ‘false nine’ extraordinaire, Cesc Fabregas. Fabregas makes intelligent runs and his finishing prowess is something that sets him apart from many other Spanish midfielders. They will boss possession, and I feel that like Barcelona a few weeks back, Spain will confound the doubters and leave France with the three points.
VERDICT: Spain 5/4
Spain are perhaps fortunate that they face a team growing in confidence and thus more likely to search for a potential killer blow. If they select the right team they will bother France, Koscielny is tentative at the best of times and Evra has been exposed defensively for United at various junctures of the season. Iniesta will control the game and should guide Spain to a critical victory.
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