Spain and France go head-to-head on Saturday in what promises to be the most attractive of the Euro 2012 quarterfinals. The attacking talent of Spain is well documented, with Xavi, Andres Iniesta two of the finest midfielders in the world and David Silva having a fine tournament, creating chances aplenty.
But there is also ample ability going forward for Laurent Blanc's French side. Samir Nasri and Franck Ribery can open up any defense on their day while Karim Benzema is now fulfilling his long-touted potential as one of the game's premier forwards at Real Madrid.
The question for France is whether they can get the blend right after generally underwhelming so far at these championships.
Coming into the tournament on the back of a 21-match unbeaten streak and after a galvanizing 2-0 victory over powerhouses Germany back in February, expectations were high in France as they arrived in Eastern Europe.
Blanc appeared to have picked up the pieces from a cataclysmic 2010 World Cup campaign and molded a side that were capable of mounting a challenge this summer. But the fact that Blanc has changed his lineup in each match so far reflects a manger still looking to blend a combination capable of getting the best out of his star players.
The pick of the performance for Les Bleus undoubtedly came against Ukraine. The presence of Jeremy Menez looking to get in behind down the right, allowing Samir Nasri to play in the number 10 role, worked a treat as France carved open the co-hosts, particularly in the second half.
But Blanc switched things around again against Sweden and France looked feeble as they fell to a 2-0 defeat.
One of the central problems to date has been the inability to get Benzema to be a real penalty-box threat. Although part of his natural game, the lack of supply has led to the former Lyon man to come deep all too often.
The fact that Benzema led the competition with the most shots on goal at the end of the group phase--France led the team statistics--obscures the reality that an undesirably high proportion of those efforts came from outside the box.
If France is have to have a chance of creating an upset against Spain, the likes of Nasri and particularly the massively under-performing Ribery will have to do a much better job of providing the ammunition for Benzema.
As well as the attacking players perform, though, it will all be for nothing unless the back line can significantly up their game against a side that tests opposition defenses like few others in history.
Ironically the suspension of Philippe Mexes could be a blessing in disguise for Blanc, with the Milan center back looking a liability for much of the Euros. There had been pressure leading into the finals for France's coach to pick Laurent Koscielny and now the move will be forced upon him.
That should strengthen the French rear guard but it is still hard to envisage Spain not creating more than enough opportunities in Donetsk.
La Roja have earned criticism from some quarters for their performances in reaching this stage, but it would be foolhardy to jump to the conclusion that their best days are now behind them.
Vicente Del Bosque has gone back and forth between playing with a conventional striker and deploying Cesc Fabragas as a false nine. Rather than the arrogant move some have suggested, the Spanish coach has merely attempted to find the best way through the encamped defenses which more often than not the team has to come up against.
Three goals scored with Fernando Torres on the pitch and three scored without a recognized striker--with two each for Torres and Fabregas--would suggest that the plan is more than just an aesthetic indulgence.
The likelihood is that Del Bosque will start with Torres against a French outfit potentially vulnerable to his pace in behind. Blanc has already suggested, though, that his team will have to make special arrangements to face the reigning world and European champions. That means we are likely to see a far more defensive approach than France has deployed so far. Despite Menez excelling against Ukraine, he can be expected to be sacrificed with Alou Diarra and Yann M'Vila forming a midfield wall in front of the back four.
That means that the contribution of Yohan Cabaye, who is set to return from a knock that kept him out against Sweden, will prove vital. France's defense is not accomplished enough to defend for 90 minutes and Cabaye will be the player entrusted with keeping the ball ticking over for France and relieving the pressure from the back four. Not to mention initiating attacks.
France possesses the ability like few other nations to hurt Spain going forward, but it is hard to see the key players seeing enough of the ball to do real damage. In contrast to a side like Germany that attack and defend as a team, there is a lack of cohesion about France's play that is likely to see them neither able to keep the Spanish out at one end or pose a consistent threat at the other.
Prediction: Spain 3-1 France