This was the not the quarterfinal the so-called experts expected in the buildup to the tournament, especially after France had drawn with England in their first game. France, with their poor performance against Sweden, have only themselves to blame for having to face the defending champions. It is a game they can win, but there is no doubt they would have preferred to be in England’s position and facing Italy. Spain will certainly enter the game as favorites, but not as overwhelming ones.
The Spanish have not looked as assured as they did in South Africa two years ago, and the injury to David Villa and the lack of form of Fernando Torres has complicated matters for them. Forget Torres’ two goals against Ireland, he scored against a second rate team, and the French will be a different proposition.
Vicente Del Bosque set up his team without a recognized forward against Italy and it did not really pay off despite the 1-1 draw. Italy were the better team, and their tactical approach caused Spain problems. France have the players to do likewise, but whether they have the tactical discipline of the Italians is another question entirely.
Ireland did not cause Spain any problems and the game was more of a training exercise than a game at a major tournament. Croatia asked more questions of Spain in the final group game, and were it not for Iker Casillas, the Spanish would already be on their summer vacation. Slaven Bilic, like his Italian counterpart, Claudio Prandelli, set up his team to frustrate Spain, and Laurent Blanc is a progressive coach who may follow suit. It will require the likes of Karim Benzema, Samir Nasri, and Franck Ribery to play for the team rather than themselves - and that is a big ask.
If I was Blanc I would start Hatem Ben Arfa and Yohan Cabaye in midfield to offer protection to a back four that will be without Phillippe Mexes, but with the inconsistent Laurent Koscielny as cover and an unconvincing Hugo Lloris in goal. Those two players will be the weak link for France, and if Patrice Evra starts then Spain will be facing an even more suspect defense. All three players have one major error in them on the big occasion.
Spain will have lots of possession as they have done in their opening three games, but other than against Ireland, they have rarely looked like punishing the opposition. Torres may get one more chance to impress, but Fernando Llorente has the power and skill to get at the France back four if called upon. The real threat to a weak defense will be from the usual trio of David Silva, Andres Iniesta, and Xavi Hernandez whose collective ability on the ball will be a threat to Koscielny.
Spain have looked tired and frustrated at different points in all three group games and they may pay the ultimate penalty for having had two teams in the last four of the UEFA Champions League. France have no real fatigue issues other than Ribery who seems to run out of steam around the 65th minute. Les Bleus will need him to last for 90 minutes, and longer if they are to prevail.
This quarterfinal could go either way, and even to penalties. Spain are the better team, but they are not playing as well they can. If the France that played England with such confidence shows up then Spain will have a difficult 90 minutes and more. If it is the team that collapsed against Sweden then Spain will be facing Portugal in an Iberian derby in the semifinal.