Freewheeling Spain face austere French for spot in Euros final

Published July 9, 2024
Donaueschingen: (L to R) Spanish players Jesus Navas, Nacho, Rodri, Marc Cucurella and Aymeric Laporte practise on Monday.—Reuters
Donaueschingen: (L to R) Spanish players Jesus Navas, Nacho, Rodri, Marc Cucurella and Aymeric Laporte practise on Monday.—Reuters

MUNICH: The battle between the two most successful national sides of the new millennium, Tuesday’s Euro 2024 semi-final between France and Spain, also showcases two contrasting styles.

Spain have dazzled in Germany, reaching the final four on the back of the attacking brilliance of wingers Lamine Yamal and Nico Williams.

By contrast France, one of the pre-tournament favourites who boast one-man offensive powerhouse Kylian Mbappe, have ground their way to the semis on the back of solid defence, conceding just one goal in five games.

Spain’s 11 goals scored is equal most in the tournament alongside hosts Germany, the team they beat in extra-time in the quarter final.

La Roja have won five from five.

Excluding wins on penalties, no team in Euros history has ever won more than five games in the same tournament.

While veteran striker Alvaro Morata captains Spain, headlining the team’s attacking prowess are young wingers Williams, 21, and Yamal, 16, providing speed and creativity from both flanks.

Williams has scored a goal and laid on an assist. Yamal is yet to find the net — if he does score at this tournament he will break the record for youngest goalscorer at the Euros by almost two years — but has provided three assists, the most at the tournament.

The team’s progress has been underpinned by the relentless positivity of manager Luis de la Fuente, who has coached several of the players at junior levels for Spain.

But Spain will be missing three players who started the quarterfinal.

Midfielder Pedri is out of the tournament after sustaining a knee injury in a nasty clash with Germany midfielder Toni Kroos in their dramatic win on Saturday.

Substitute Mikel Merino’s header in the 119th minute gave Spain a 2-1 win in a nerve-racking encounter that ended with 16 bookings including a yellow card for centre back Robin Le Normand and a red for fullback Dani Carvajal, meaning both are suspended for Tuesday’s game.

Real Madrid defender Nacho will play centre back alongside Ay­m­eric Laporte and 38 year-old full back Jesus Navas, the last player of Spain’s golden generation who won the 2010 World Cup and back to back Euro titles in 2008 and 2012.

All in all the team is a blend of deep experience and raw talent that has been thriving under the calm guidance of de la Fuente.

“This is everyone’s national team. Unity is strength and if we all keep pushing in the same direction, we can achieve our goals. If we are connecting with our fans then I am more than happy to play a part in generating enthusiasm,” de la Fuente told reporters.

Having topped the goal tally with 16 at the Qatar World Cup, France qualified for the final four at Euro 2024 on the basis of strong defence while their attack has deserted them in Germany.

France have made it to the semis scoring just three goals — none by a French player from open play.

Only seven sides at Euro 2024 have scored less than France.

Their run to includes two scoreless draws and two 1-0 victories thanks to own goals from an opposition player.

Didier Deschamps’ side have however conceded just one goal — a penalty to Poland’s Robert Lewandowski — and kept four clean sheets.

Superstar Mbappe, who scored eight of France’s Qatar World Cup goals, has scored just once in Germany — from a penalty.

On Friday they only edged past Portugal on penalties, with Mbappe substituted after another match where he spent more time fiddling with his mask than setting up his team-mates.

Deschamps’ France often manage to be dour and dramatic at the same time — defensively solid, they tend to waste chances up front, and they survived against Portugal partly thanks to similarly wasteful Cristiano Ronaldo.

Mbappe’s form after sustaining a broken nose in France’s opener and that of Antoine Griezmann remain big question marks ahead of the clash with Spain.

“Personally I don’t give a damn” about the critics, midfielder Youssouf Fofana told a press conference on Sunday. “We are semi-finalists. Questions about the level of Antoine and Kylian? We have to realise that that’s enough to be in the semi-finals. So I don’t see why we would nitpick.”

While they may not have set Euro 2024 alight, the French boast incredible recent experience at major tournaments.

In the decade since the 2014 World Cup, France have failed to make the final of a major tournament only once, when they lost to Switzerland on penalties in the last 16 of Euro 2020.

Published in Dawn, July 9th, 2024

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