Euro 2012: Spain 2 France 0
DONETSK, UKRAINE // Lionel Messi would have approved. And not just because many of his Barcelona colleagues, playing the tiki-taka football of legend, were the architects of the win.
Far more importantly for the Argentina forward and fellow lovers of the Beautiful Game, the victors were the ones who pursued the win, not those who were content merely on destruction and anti-football.
"Today, teams are playing more statically, more for the final score than producing good football," Messi was quoted as saying yesterday before the third quarter-final of the European Championship kicked off. He may as well have been writing France's game plan for them.
It seems the default setting for teams playing against Barcelona/Spain at present. Happily, the team which plays its football with sleight of foot and smiles on their faces are still a step ahead of the rest.
For all Spain's trademark, precision excellence, however, this game could have done with a Messi himself to provide some spark into proceedings.
It was mostly featureless, as the French were happy to allow Spain the ball, and the holders were happy not to do anything overly spectacular with it.
Laurent Blanc, the elegant France manager, had stated explicitly that his side would have to blunt the world champions by any means necessary, and if that meant playing boring football, then so be it.
His team selection said as much, loaded as it was with defensively minded players. Samir Nasri and Hatem Ben Arfa, two players said to be at the root of the post-game bust-up in France's previous outing - a 2-0 defeat to Sweden in their final group match, were both conspicuous by their absence from the starting XI.
However, given that Vicente Del Bosque, Blanc's opposite number, had again decided to eschew the use of a recognised centre-forward, it seemed as though neither team really much fancied winning.
The irony was, when the first goal did arrive, it was like a classic centre-forward's strike. Xabi Alonso, the archetypal midfield schemer, drifted into the box and became a makeshift No 9 as he headed in from a cross by Jordi Alba, Spain's brilliant raiding left-back.
It had been tepid fare until then, so much so that just before the goal went in a chant of "Ukraine, Ukraine" was being bellowed from the stands of the Donbass Arena.
Not long after, play lulled again and the songs were in favour of Russia this time. This city is only 60kms from the border, and many people who live here are native Russians.
The periods of restlessness were frequent. Spain's fans passed the time by doing a conga. The Mexican waves did more laps than Lewis Hamilton.
At one point in the second half, Spain's players were whistled and jeered for keeping the ball for so long and not letting France have a go.
Del Bosque did not take long to tire of the stasis. He was gesticulating to them to attack more as the whistle blew for half time, and as the second half drifted he went for more thrust by introducing Fernando Torres, the striker, and Pedro Rodriguez, the winger.
They immediately looked more potent, with Torres twice being denied almost certain goals by the brilliance of Hugo Lloris, France's goalkeeper and captain.
The defending champions were always in control of the game, but a 1-0 lead was always a precarious one.
However, France did not appear to believe they could win it.
The morale seemed low all throughout and, despite the protestations to the contrary all week, the waters still appeared to be muddy after the row following the Sweden match.
It was clear there was a fragile peace within the French ranks. When Blanc understandably swapped Yann M'Vila for a striker, Olivier Giroud, his ineffective defensive midfielder left the scene in a petulant rage. They can change their coach, but old habits die hard for Les Bleus.
Spain are in a habit, too. The eminently more preferable one of winning football matches, and this one was settled when Alonso, the outstanding player on display, beat Lloris from the penalty spot after Pedro was fouled in the penalty area.
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Published: June 24, 2012 04:00 AM