Spain v France preview
Spain have never beaten France in a competitive fixture – can they put that record straight tonight?
Spain are clearly the favourites here, and as the side less likely to change their shape or spring a tactical surprise, it makes sense to consider them first.
Vicente del Bosque hinted yesterday that he’d consider changing his side slightly, and while it’s almost unthinkable that he’d change the ‘first’ nine players (ie Iker Casillas through to Andres Iniesta), the other two positions, occupied by David Silva and Fernando Torres, are less secure.
Torres remains the favourite to start, despite competition from Fernando Llorente and Alvaro Negredo. There’s certainly an argument that Llorente would be better suited to this game, to test the aerial ability of the French centre-backs, and one could also argue that Negredo is now better at playing Torres’ old game than the Torres of 2012. Del Bosque places loyalty and familiarity before tactical concerns, though, and seems more likely to stick with the Chelsea striker.
The other (slight) issue is Cesc Fabregas. Without wanting to go over old ground, he brings Spain more verticality, and having scored two goals already despite starting only once, he must be in del Bosque’s thoughts. He could start in a right-ish position in place of Silva, or del Bosque could even return to the false nine system we saw against Italy…but this might be overcomplicating things, as del Bosque will probably leave the side unchanged.
Laurent Blanc will have to make at least one change from the defeat to Sweden. Philippe Mexes is suspended, so Laurent Koscielny will replace him. This isn’t a huge blow – Koscielny’s been in better form than Mexes over the past year, and his style suits playing against Spain – he’s quick and reads the game well. Indeed, Koscielny is the only other recognised centre-back in the squad, and Blanc is one injury away from having to play Alou Diarra out of position at the back, because of his strange decision to name only three centre-backs in the squad. The concern isn’t about Koscielny’s ability, but about whether he has a relationship with Adil Rami.
That is a certain change, so it’s barely a debate. Instead, Blanc’s main selection dilemma is in the centre of midfield. Yohan Cabaye missed the Sweden game with a small injury, so Blanc fielded Yann M’Vila and Diarra together in a strong holding midfield pairing. Samir Nasri was ahead as the number ten in a 4-2-3-1.
France lost the game, of course, but a similar selection might be on the cards here. France need to pack that central midfield zone, the position where literally half Spain’s team likes to operate. Diarra on his own would be a risk – he likes to stick tight to opponents, and would be drawn out of position by one player (Silva?) and the resulting space would be exploited by another (Iniesta?).
Despite the Sweden result, it does make sense to play both Diarra and M’Vila. That doesn’t necessarily have to mean Cabaye misses out, though – he played well in France’s first two games, particularly when moving higher up the pitch. He might play at the head of the midfield trio, which in turn would push Samir Nasri into the front three, into the right-sided role he played against England on the opening day – when he was the key player.
In isolation, Blanc might prefer to play Nasri in midfield, but this seems the best solution – Cabaye in the centre and Nasri on the right is a better bet than Nasri in the centre and either Jeremy Menez or Hatem Ben Arfa on the right. Menez did well against Ukraine, but might not be the best player to track Jordi Alba’s runs.
That’s the most important selection decision, but France’s overall approach will decide the nature of the game. Spain are a known quantity, but France have the ability to vary their play. Generally they’ve focused upon ball retention so far in this competition, and while they certainly won’t dominate possession in this match, Blanc has to decide whether to compete in midfield, or defend deep and counter quickly.
The second approach is more natural when playing against Spain, but it remains to be seen whether France’s defence is good enough to withstand constant pressure, and they’d probably be relying as much on Spain’s lack of verticality as their own defensive strength.
Ribery v Arbeloa
They do have an obvious out-ball, though – Franck Ribery on the left. His battle with Alvaro Arbeloa will be the most interesting individual clash of the game. Arbeloa is probably Spain’s weak link – his attacking isn’t purposeful enough, his passing is too slow, and Xavi Hernandez keeps shouting at him, telling him to press quicker.
Ribery was involved in the key battle of the game against Ukraine, when Oleg Husiev kept running past him. Ribery didn’t track, Ukraine should have punished him by using Husiev on the overlap, but then Ribery was in a position to prompt counters and helped created the opening goal, when Husiev was out of position. Arbeloa will be more cautious than Husiev, but this zone of the pitch will be crucial.
It will also be important as Karim Benzema moves to that flank, looking to get the ball to feet and becoming the ‘wall’ for Ribery’s one-twos that enable him to storm towards goal. Gerard Pique’s marking of Benzema will be crucial, and Ramos might become the sweeper.
Spain are strong favourites, likely to keep the ball for long periods in the first half, then look to penetrate more after half-time. Blanc will have to come up with something clever to defeat the World Champions.