Shaken by Sweden loss, France must find a way to stop Spain dictating Euro 2012 quarterfinal
DONETSK, Ukraine - France has something that other teams envy: an unbeaten record against Spain in competitive matches.
But while France had arguably the better players when they last met in a tournament at the 2006 World Cup, this time the French must find a way to stop the reigning European champions from dictating the game in Saturday's quarterfinal.
That looks even more difficult considering how France's defence capitulated in the 2-0 defeat to Sweden on Tuesday, and the fact it will have a makeshift centre half pairing of Laurent Koscielny and Adil Rami for the game.
"We have to believe, even though that will make some people smile after (the Sweden) match," France coach Laurent Blanc said. "If we manage to keep the ball more than Spain it will be an accomplishment, although it doesn't guarantee victory. We have to take our chances."
Tournament history weighs heavily in France's favour.
Les Bleus won 3-1 in the last 16 of the World Cup six years ago, won 2-1 in the quarterfinals at Euro 2000 and 2-0 in the 1984 Euro final. France also beat Spain home and away in Euro '92 qualifiers, and drew 1-1 in the group stage at Euro '96.
Nice for the record books, but of little help on Saturday, especially in the intense heat of Donetsk.
"The problem is that we are going to have to have to run — and run a lot — and also close down space, even though they always seem to find some," Blanc said. "I don't think Spain has just one strength, they have many. I like their way of playing. Not only is it pleasant to watch but it's efficient and spectacular. We have to try and match that, but we're a long way off."
Blanc was impressed by the way Croatia took the game to Spain in their final group game before losing 1-0 to a late goal.
"You need heart when you play Spain," Blanc said. "If you look at Croatia, there was an incredible bond between their players."
That was not the case against Sweden, with France falling apart on the field and then having a bust-up in the dressing room afterward.
"Sweden dominated us in every area, especially in terms of athletic strength, mental strength and even technique," Blanc said. "If Saturday is like that we can expect a very, very hard game."
With Philippe Mexes suspended, Arsenal defender Koscielny is set to make his first appearance of the tournament alongside Rami, who plays for Spanish club Valencia.
Their only full match together was a friendly against the United States last November — hardly ideal preparation to stop arguably the slickest attacking machine in world football.
Still, Koscielny does not seem to be intimidated.
"A lot of players would dream of playing their first game at the European Championship against the defending champion," he said. "Spain and Barcelona resemble each other quite a lot, and I think it helps me to know that I've already faced the players who play for Barcelona."
Choosing the right way to take on the Spanish is difficult. Sitting back invites constant pressure; attacking too much opens up too space for them to exploit.
"If you go all-out attack against Spain then you're in trouble," Koscielny said. "You have to keep it tight against them."
Koscielny is an excellent reader of the game and has the gift of anticipation — something Blanc also had as a defender.
"We want him to bring his qualities to the team," Blanc said. "He will certainly have a lot of work to do against Spain, and a lot of balls to cut out, especially from diagonal passes."
Blanc knows his players must improve drastically after their nerve-wracked performance against Sweden.
"We need to play more simply, dare I say in a Spanish way," Blanc said. "They seem to do it with their eyes shut, and that's called tactical intelligence."
Blanc could make changes in attack, with Mathieu Valbuena a possible choice on the right flank.
"Valbuena can offer us options," Blanc said. "Most of the changes we've made have been on the right."