Euro 2012: Ronaldo next on menu for Spain's boa constrictors
Zinedine Zidane celebrated his 40th birthday on Saturday and he ended it having retained the distinction of being the last opposing player to score against Spain in the knockout stages of a major tournament.
Zidane, France's inspiration on their way to World Cup and European Championship glory in 1998 and 2000, would almost certainly have wished to see the current incarnation of Les Bleus erase him from the record books during their Euro 2012 quarter-final against Spain in Donetsk, but while the watching world appears hypnotised by the Spaniards' peerless passing game, the bedrock on which their success has been built -- their defence -- ticked off another 90 minutes without conceding a goal and it was barely noticed.
Xabi Alonso's two-goal display, a fitting way to mark his 100th appearance, confirmed victory in the Donbass Arena and ensured an Iberian semi-final against Portugal at the same venue on Wednesday evening.
Cristiano Ronaldo is likely to pose more threat to Spain on his own than France were able to manage as a squabbling collective in Donetsk, but while the plaudits continue to rain down on Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Alonso, Spain have now gone eight games -- a total of 720 minutes -- without shipping a goal in knockout football since Zidane wrapped up France's 3-1 win in Hanover in 2006.
Since then, Spain have become the boa constrictors of world football. Their passing grinds opponents down to the point that one goal is usually enough to ensure progression. But for Alonso's stoppage-time penalty here, following Anthony Reveillere's foul on Pedro Rodriguez, the ex-Liverpool midfielder's first-half header would have signalled Spain's sixth consecutive 1-0 victory in knockout games.
"The key to this team is control," claimed defender Gerard Pique. "You must control the rhythm of the game.
"With the ball, you defend yourself better; that's the best way because opponents are less dangerous if you have the ball and you know that the chances will come. If you have 60pc or 70pc of the possession, it gives you tranquillity."
The knee injury that has forced Carles Puyol to miss this tournament has done little to affect Spain's defensive solidity. Real Madrid's Sergio Ramos has slotted alongside Pique at centre-half and the transition has been seamless. "Defensively, we were excellent against France." Ramos said. "There is a solidity on which the team is built that is very important."
France, with tensions rising in the squad following internal rows in the aftermath the Group D defeat against Sweden, exited with a whimper.
Iker Casillas was troubled just twice, once from a Yohan Cabaye free-kick and then from a Franck Ribery cross in the second half, as Laurent Blanc's team performed like the factionalised group they seem to be.
But despite the impressive form of Ronaldo for the Portuguese in this tournament, Pique insists that Spain will not alter their approach in an attempt to nullify the Real Madrid forward in Wednesday's semi-final.
Pique said: "Ronaldo is one of the best players in the world, but it's not an individual duel with him. The key will be to control the game. If we have the ball, he will be able to participate less and will cause us fewer problems." (© Daily Telegraph, London)