Semifinalists: Spain's players celebrate after their team's second goal during the Euro 2012 soccer championship quarterfinal match between Spain and France in Donetsk, Ukraine, Saturday (Sunday in Jakarta). (AP/Laurent Cipriani)Much maligned but effective once again, Spain's experimental six-man midfield got the job done against France on Saturday in the European Championship quarterfinals.
The defending champions play Portugal next after the 2-0 victory at the Donbass Arena, where usual midfielder Cesc Fabregas led Spain's attack from the start over Fernando Torres for the second time this tournament.
Xabi Alonso scored goals in each half as Spain's slick-passing midfielders effectively stifled France, controlling 55 percent of possession. It was Spain's first competitive victory over France on its seventh try.
Coach Vicente del Bosque opted for Fabregas over Torres against a top-ranked team for the second time after having also done so in a 1-1 draw against Italy, and seems ready to stick with the formula going into the semifinals.
Del Bosque said there was no debate over whether or not the system worked, only about when to use it.
"We're not always so sure it's the best option, especially against the best teams," Del Bosque said. "With a pure striker, we might have been able to stretch their defense more, but we wouldn't have controlled the rhythm of the game like we did. The result was fair because they didn't have any clear opportunities to score.
France coach Laurent Blanc said only with more time to prepare could the French have improved, and he would have likely gone with a three-man defensive line as the Italians did, with a player capable of moving the ball out of the back quicker, as Daniele de Rossi did for Italy.
Instead, Mathieu Debuchy, a right back playing midfield against Spain, couldn't keep up with Jordi Alba as he crossed for Alonso to score an early opener.
"There was no surprise, although we were expecting Torres, but I don't know if we would have preferred Torres," Blanc said. "It might have allowed my center back to focus on one player instead of having to stay focused on four. We could have played them better if we had more time to prepare for such a strategy."
Spain seemed to be on cruise control at times as it passed the ball around — it completed 638 passes — looking for the best option for going forward, able to take advantage of its few opportunities. France, meanwhile, managed just four shots overall, with just one on goalkeeper Iker Casillas.
"These types of games, in this competition, are always very tense and you have to have the know-how to win them, and we had it," Del Bosque said.