Euro 2012: Pressure mounts on Del Bosque and Blanc to get it right
WITH the ultimate prize potentially only 270 minutes away, the quarter-finals of a major international tournament should, in theory, be a time for great optimism. Yet no one, it would seem, has told France or Spain.
Laurent Blanc even admitted yesterday that the "demons" of France's disintegration at the 2010 World Cup still haunt his squad and, for the third day running, the dominant theme of their press conference was the blazing dressing-room row that followed Tuesday's 2-0 defeat against Sweden.
Spain's issues are rather less serious yet it has still been instructive this week to hear Vicente del Bosque, the manager of the world and European champions, having to be so defensive about his team.
They may have qualified top of their group, but performances against Italy and Croatia have compounded a suspicion, exposed by Chelsea against Barcelona, that opponents are finding a way to negate their possession-based style. Whether France have the players or mentality for that challenge is more doubtful, particularly as a sizeable chunk of their preparation has been spent picking up the pieces from the loss against Sweden.
Blanc had already admitted to a "very angry" dressing-room altercation in Kiev on Tuesday, but, rather than attempt to close down the issue on the eve of tonight's match, he kept answering questions about it.
"I know we have got a lot of difficulties: a lot, a lot, a lot," he said.
"We know the role is not easy, we are rebuilding. We know where we have come from, what we have experienced. We still have these demons -- everyone still recalls what happened (in 2010).
"We are worried it will come about again. Even if there were a few altercations after the game, the paradox is that we qualified for the quarter-finals.
"There was a lot of anger and people were quite worked up, but coming back to Donetsk allowed us to calm down and be at peace. Since yesterday, we are completely focused on preparing for Spain."
Blanc is still planning significant changes. Laurent Koscielny will start at centre-back in place of the suspended Philippe Mexes, while Samir Nasri may also have to make way for an extra defensive midfielder.
The Les Bleus boss said that he would also adjust his tactics in the expectation that France may well have only about a third of possession.
Blanc was clearly amused to hear that Spain have been facing criticism from their own fans, but, intriguingly, did suggest that teams have had some success by trying to "bore" the defending champions.
"They have dominated world football for four years and no one has stopped them," he said.
"We have to adapt our way, but that does not mean giving up our own strengths. I don't think we were committed (against Sweden) and Spain are much better than Sweden technically.
"You hope the off day will not repeat itself against Spain, because it will be even worse. They are the best team in the world. Quite honestly, people who criticise their playing style are very demanding."
History does, at least, offer some hope for France who have never lost to Spain in a competitive match.
Blanc himself was part of the French team who eliminated Spain from this tournament in 2000 and, more significantly, it was Les Bleus who inflicted their last defeat at a major tournament.
That was at the 2006 World Cup, with Spain having since won 40 of 46 competitive matches.
There is a suspicion, though, that Spain are more vulnerable that at any period over the past four years. The absence of David Villa, their best centre-forward, is clearly a major loss.
The debate now rumbles over whether Fernando Torres should start as a conventional striker or if the team's style is better suited to having Cesc Fabregas as the 'false No 9'.
Yet some perspective is also necessary. Spain have scored more and conceded fewer than any other quarter-finalist.
Inevitably, they have also had the most possession and shots. There is a sense within the team that they have become victims of their own success and the vast expectation that now follows them, with Del Bosque wearily noting that Spain was "a country of extremisms."
Alvaro Arbeloa was more succinct. "It's surreal," he said.
"People don't seem to realise that in a competition like this the difficulty is huge. You can't win every game 3-0. The opposition play, too, but it is as if they don't exist. We have all gone a bit mad."
Captain Iker Casillas said: "The truth is that we've raised the standards so much.
"In the last few years, we've become European and world champions, and now people demand that from us again. But people shouldn't forget that it's not that easy."
Andres Iniesta, so far looking fitter, fresher and somehow even better than ever, agreed.
"All thoughts or criticisms that are constructive, and aren't hurtful, and have to be respected," said the Barcelona midfielder, who has continued to play with his characteristic mix of ethereal drift and ruthless conviction.
"We just need a bit of patience, a bit of balance and coherence, because we all want to win, of course," Iniesta said.
"We all want to do well and the coach puts out the team he thinks is the best for each match. You certainly have games where things go well and others where they don't."
Most teams, including France, would happily swap their difficulties with those of the world champions. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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