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Xabi Alonso celebrated his 100th cap with a goal in either half as Spain beat France in a competitive game for the first time to book a UEFA EURO 2012 semi-final against neighbours Portugal on Wednesday.
Les Bleus may have been the last team to eliminate Spain from a major tournament – in the 2006 FIFA World Cup – but that mantle must now be taken up by somebody else if Vicente del Bosque's charges are not to retain their title. Alonso, one of five Spain starters also involved from the off in that Hanover defeat six years ago, showed no battle scars and duly made the difference with an emphatic first-half header and a late spot kick.
Laurent Blanc is no soothsayer by trade, but the prescience of his Friday press conference was impossible to ignore. He had called on his side to ride out the opening 20 minutes or risk a stern punishment dished out by their opponents; Les Bleus fell barely 90 seconds short.
Blanc had also dubbed Del Bosque's team "a delight to watch" but he must have found their poise in possession more painful than joyful. Short, sharp and purposeful on the ball, La Roja looked capable of unpicking the French lock whenever they pleased. Alonso chanced his arm from range early on but that is simply not his, or their, style – Spain were never going to batter the door down, simply shimmy it open.
A reinforced France right – Anthony Réveillère and Mathieu Debuchy – looked an unlikely weak spot, but Andrés Iniesta has always seen things others do not. Réveillère had drifted inside from full-back and Iniesta threaded the ball through to Jordi Alba, who shrugged off Debuchy and crossed for Alonso to head down and across Hugo Lloris.
Though the goalscorer, considering the occasion, was a worthy centurion of this particular red army, his midfield cohorts were no less influential. France, by contrast, were compact as demanded but blunt and lacking in numbers getting forward. Yohan Cabaye's first-half free-kick was Iker Casillas's only notable save.
His France counterpart, Lloris, meanwhile, should have been tested when Gerard Piqué headed over having been found in space from a corner. Debuchy made the same mistake from an almost identical position 15 minutes into the second period after Franck Ribéry had wriggled free on the left and crossed precisely.
'Faux' centre-forward Cesc Fàbregas came off and traditional No9 Fernando Torres came on, but the pattern continued. Spain did not have the two-thirds possession the cerebral Blanc had predicted, but they had enjoyed more than their fair share and, most importantly of all, used it with characteristic wisdom.
As if to prove the point, a typically intricate move led to the added-time penalty, dispatched consummately by Alonso, which iced the cake. Spain, though, look to have plenty more in the tank – Paulo Bento's side have been warned.
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