Spain vs. France: 5 Key Players for Spain's Euro 2012 Chance
We are now halfway through the quarterfinals of Euro 2012, and it is time for the reigning champions to take the pitch.
Coming into the tournament, many were still struggling to see Spain as anything less than unstoppable. The sheer talent at Vicente del Bosque's disposal made it hard for some to forget about the last four years.
Now, after all of their previous weaknesses have been exposed in the group stages, La Roja looks as vulnerable as they have been since their exit from the 2006 World Cup.
Italy was the toughest opponent of the group stages, but France will be as difficult an opponent as any faced to this point.
Offensively, France presents a worst-case scenario for Spain. Les Bleus' biggest strengths match up perfectly with Spain's biggest weaknesses.
They have an explosive attack from the wings in Franck Ribery. Spain's fullbacks have struggled all summer and have yet to face an opponent like the Frenchman.
They also have one of the best strikers in football—Karim Benzema—and a fantastic midfield group that includes Manchester City's Samir Nasri. If France chooses to attack Spain, they can.
If they choose instead to play a defensive counter attack, they have the pace on the wings, the passing pivot in Yann M'Vila and an attacking midfield capable of shredding Spain's central defense.
With that said, here are the five most important players going into Spain's quarterfinal date with France.
5. Andres Iniesta
Alex Grimm/Getty Images
Through the group stages, Andres Iniesta was one of the top players of the entire tournament. The midfield maestro has dazzled fans with his close control and vision.
More relevantly to fans, he was the most important player on the team when it came to managing Spain's attack.
If Spain is going to break down France's fragile central defense—with or without a striker—Iniesta will continue to be the key.
He will have to make the most of Xavi's build up and lane creation by finding space and creating chances for his teammates.
Next in command: David Silva
Silva has been in the middle of almost every scoring opportunity—whether as a false nine or a three-man midfield attack. The same will be needed against France.
4. Gerard Pique
Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
The Barcelona man has thus far failed to adequately replace the leadership and defensive solidity of his club teammate, Carles Puyol.
Pique's partnership with Sergio Ramos has often lacked communication and understanding which has allowed the opposition to split the middle and take shots far too easily.
He will likely play on the right side of Spain's central defense, which means he will have a lot of work to do all night.
Pique will be the final man against Ribery when—not if—he beats Alvaro Arbeloa. When not aiding his teammates, he will also need to work with Sergio Ramos and Sergio Busquets to manage Nasri and France's midfield.
As if that wasn't enough, he will also have to close down on Benzema when the Real Madrid man receives the final pass Nasri.
Equally needed: Sergio Ramos
The same will be needed of Sergio Ramos. Not only will he need to work well with Pique in the central defense and on set pieces, he will also have to assist Jordi Alba against Mathieu Debuchy and both of France's wingers.
3. Iker Casillas
Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
Spain's number one may not have much to brag about in terms of the number of shots saved, but he has been essential to the defending champs' place in the quarterfinals.
Against Croatia especially, San Iker was immense. Ramos and Pique continued to allow far too many shots and let speedy forwards break the line, so Casillas was called upon to make some key saves.
The Real Madrid legend will likely have a lot to do in the second half when France will open up their attack—and probably also in the first 15 minutes with France knowing how important it is to score first against the Spaniards.
With Spain controlling possession as much as they usually do, there is not a tremendous amount of work for Casillas to do for long periods at a time.
However, knowing that the team has an experienced, focused, world class keeper between the posts gives them the confidence to patiently work France's defense without fearing the anticipated counter attack.
2. Sergio Busquets
Alex Grimm/Getty Images
Defensive midfielders are usually the least appreciated players on the Spanish squad. Ironically, they are also some the most important players on the pitch.
Against France, Sergio Busquets will need to kill any counter attack quickly by reading France's speedy attack and trying to push their first pass out centrally where Xabi Alonso and the center backs can kill momentum.
When France's attack is cut off around midfield, the Barcelona man must make himself available in space to mop up any loose balls and backward passes from his fellow midfielders.
His first pass on the ball will continue to be key as it will not only have to spread France's central triangles and lanes, but will also need to guide Spain's movement going forward.
Busquets will also likely be the first man to aid Arbeloa and Alba on the wings when France's wide men get pushed inside the defenders.
Not to be forgotten: Xabi Alonso
Alonso will be switching roles with Busquets and play as the deepest midfielder on the pitch, aiding the center backs when they are spread apart in the run of play. His positioning is vital to Iker Casillas, limiting goals for Spain.
1. Alvaro Arbeloa
Jasper Juinen/Getty Images
From Samir Nasir and Jeremy Menez to Karim Benzema, France has a lot of scoring threats that can really cause Spain trouble.
But make no mistake, of all the talented players in attack, France's best chance at beating Spain is Franck Ribery. He is the relentless creator who will wreak havoc on both fullbacks throughout the game.
The man responsible for shutting down Benzema will most often be Alvaro Arbeloa. Although Ribery will likely swap sides throughout the night, his preferred point of attack will be down Spain's right flank.
Stopping the Frenchman will almost be impossible, so Arbeloa will do his best to manage him. Possession will be in Spain's favor, but Ribery is a master at creating the most out of limited time on the ball.
The right back will need to close in quickly once Ribery receives the ball and does his best to push him into the middle of the pitch where his defensive midfielders will seal off the Frenchman's passing lanes and space.
If—or when—Ribery does get to the outside, Arbeloa will need to limit how far he gets down the flank to prevent him from circling behind him or sending a cross into the middle—where the center backs continue to struggle on set pieces.
Alvaro Arbeloa will probably be Spain's hardest working player on the night—or at least, he will need to be.
Not to be forgotten: Jordi Alba
Franck Ribery is France's best weapon, but by no means is he their only one. Jordi Alba will also need to work hard to stop Hatem Ben Arfa while also making sure not to get caught too far forward.
The Alba-Debuchy match-up will be one to watch all night.
Jasper Juinen/Getty Images
This is not the first time Spain will be tested, but since it is the first elimination match of their tournament, it is the most important one so far.
Many are picking Spain as heavy favorites, but there are plenty of key match-ups that are in France's favor. Ribery, Nasri, Debuchy, Ben Arfa and Benzema are all going to cause massive problems for Spain.
Teamwork, near-perfect communication, discipline and limiting space when France have the ball will be paramount for the Spaniards.
If Spain are to be Portugal's opponents in the semifinals, they will need to silence one of the best attacking units in the entire tournament while also taking advantage of a weak central defense.
The starting XI that Vicente del Bosque selects will also be telling of how the match will go. If there is not a strong attacking option in the form of a illegitimate striker, Spain would fail to take advantage of a great match-up.