How do you beat Spain? It is one of the most frequently-aired questions in football these days, but no one has yet come up with a definitive answer. Florent Malouda is well qualified to offer at least an educated response.
The midfielder was part of the France side that knocked La Roja out of the 2006 FIFA World Cup and, more recently, he helped Chelsea FC win the UEFA Champions League, beating FC Barcelona and their armada of Spanish internationals on the way. He is also club-mates with Fernando Torres and Juan Mata.
The good news for France fans is that despite the defeat by Sweden in their last Group D game, Malouda is convinced Les Bleus can spring an upset against the defending world and European champions in Saturday's UEFA EURO 2012 quarter-final.
"It's possible," the 32-year-old told UEFA.com. "We respect Spain a lot – they have been setting the standards for the rest of the world for six years – but whenever we come into a competition we do everything we can to win it. We didn't show up against Sweden, but we'll make the changes we need to make to beat Spain."
Malouda has drawn encouragement from the fact both Italy and Croatia posed Spain problems in the group stage, and believes France will have to display similar defensive resolve in Donetsk. "When you play Spain, you have to be tactically disciplined to deny them space," added the former Olympique Lyonnais winger. "They're technically outstanding. They're all comfortable with the ball and they can control possession.
"We have to defend well as a team, but that alone won't be enough to win. We also have to use our own qualities, which means penetrating when we attack, keeping the ball well, and taking our chances. If we score first then some doubt might creep into their minds."
The message from Laurent Blanc's most experienced player is clear: the two-time UEFA European Championship winners will have to work tirelessly and remain focused when they do not have the ball – then burst in to life when they do.
There is no question, Malouda says, of trying to emulate Chelsea's recent backs-to-the-wall triumph against Barcelona. "Looking at the three games we've had here, I don't think we're capable of playing that way," Malouda reflected. "We don't have players who can maintain that level of tactical discipline. We're not a team that enjoys sitting back and soaking up pressure. We like to have the ball. Spain do too, so it's going to be a big test."
History suggests France have a good chance. They have never lost a competitive match against Spain, most recently winning 3-1 in Hannover six years ago. However, of the current French squad, only Malouda and Franck Ribéry featured in that game, while six of Spain's starting XI are in contention to play again at the Donbass Arena.
Capped 79 times by his country, and a veteran of four major tournaments, Malouda will use his memories of 2006 to try to instil confidence in his younger team-mates. "The knowledge that we have beaten them will help us believe we're capable of winning such a decisive game," he said.
"I'll talk to the players and make sure everyone believes. But this squad has already beaten big teams like England, Germany and Brazil. They may only have been friendlies but we handled those games well. This is different: it's a quarter-final. We have nothing to lose, so we have to do everything we can to spring a surprise."
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