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Alonso shines bright on a dull night

Among a galaxy of twinkle-footed stars, he is not one who attracts the headlines or the nominations.

sports Updated: Jun 25, 2012 01:25 IST
The Guardian
The Guardian

Among a galaxy of twinkle-footed stars, he is not one who attracts the headlines or the nominations.

On Saturday night, however, Xabi Alonso not only scored the goals but celebrated his 100th cap by virtually running the show as Spain continued their defence of the European title with a relatively routine victory over France, the last side to beat them in a major tournament.

That was six years ago, in the first knockout round of the World Cup in Germany, a match in which Zinedine Zidane gave one of the last great performances of his career. A repeat never looked on the cards.

Laurent Blanc has done well to restore the charred ruin left behind by Raymond Domenech.

His squad contains talented players, but the gap left by their greatest player of the past 20 years remains, unsurprisingly, to be filled.

Zidane would certainly have applauded Alonso's performance, crowned by a powerful headed goal in the first half and a confidently taken penalty in stoppage time.

Against a French team set up to block Spain's passing patterns, with two right-backs specifically deployed in an attempt to foil Andrés Iniesta, the 30-year-old Alonso played the measured game familiar to fans of Liverpool and his current club, Real Madrid.

"I think the Czech Republic and Argentina will be among those who remember his goals," Vicente del Bosque, Spain's coach, said when it was suggested that Alonso did not score often.

Blanc's gambit of doubling up at right-back, with Mathieu Debuchy pushed ahead of Anthony Réveillère in an attempt to limit the scope for Iniesta, was exposed by the opening goal.

The little Spaniard slipped a pass inside Debuchy, encouraging the overlapping Jordi Alba to make for the byline and clip over a judicious cross that allowed the unmarked Alonso to dive into his header as if in slow motion - a considerable surprise, since who remembers him scoring with his head?

Even he didn't.

Could he remember scoring in such a manner for Spain in the past, or indeed for anyone?

A long pause, then a shake of the head.

"No, you'll have to ask someone else."

Blanc called it an "infuriating" goal. Alonso, he said, had been able to "stroll in" and score.

Ten minutes later his side had their best chance of an equaliser through Yohan Cabaye's sensational 25-yard free-kick, after Sergio Ramos had blocked Karim Benzema's promising run.

Unfortunately for Cabaye, no goalkeeper has ever bettered Iker Casillas in the art of flying across the goalmouth to tip a fierce shot around the angle.

For most of the match Blanc's team looked half-mesmerised, almost anaesthetised, by Spain's patterns.

They did not really wake up until an hour had gone, when Franck Ribéry came to life and started driving for the byline, turning in crosses that were cleared with difficulty.

At that point Spain appeared to have switched off, although they were enlivened towards the end by the arrival of the busy Pedro Rodriguez, who removed a little of the languour from their approach. Alonso's penalty came as a belated confirmation of the balance of play.

First Published: Jun 25, 2012 00:24 IST