DONETSK, Ukraine — Even if Spain failed to live up to expectations, Xabi Alonso exceeded them.
The defending champions, who are trying to win a third straight major title, advanced to the European Championship semifinals with a not-so-commanding 2-0 win over France on Saturday. In the next round, Portugal and star player Cristiano Ronaldo could provide a much sterner test.
"These types of games, in this type of competition, are always very tense," Spain coach Vicente del Bosque said of Saturday's win, "and you need to have the know-how to win them."
Alonso provided that.
The Real Madrid midfielder celebrated his 100th international appearance with an early header and a late penalty, a pair of rare goals from a player more accustomed to anchoring the back of the six-man midfield rather than pushing forward with the rest.
"I could never have imagined to reach my 100th cap, to go to the semis and score two goals," Alonso said. "Hopefully the 101st will be better."
Spain's next match will come on Wednesday against Portugal, again at the Donbass Arena in Donetsk. And with Ronaldo improving as the tournament progresses, Spain will likely have to improve as well to earn a chance to defend its title.
Saturday's opening goal was the result of excellent one-touch soccer — the hallmark of Spain's game. Andres Iniesta prodded the ball through for Jordi Alba, who whipped a perfect cross from the left. Alonso timed his run so well that no France defender picked him up.
Spain wrapped things up after France right back Anthony Reveillere barged into substitute forward Pedro Rodriguez in injury time. Alonso coolly sent goalkeeper Hugo Lloris the wrong way from the spot, looking right but clipping the ball firmly to the left.
"He knows how to sacrifice himself, help the team and where to play," Del Bosque said of Alonso. "He is one of the attacking strengths of ours. He knows how to create and finish."
The win was Spain's first ever over France in a competitive match in seven attempts. But France wasn't that competitive Saturday, managing only one shot on target.
"When you lose a game there's always something missing, I'm not sure if it's possession or technical ability," France coach Laurent Blanc said. "The lads gave everything and it's very hard to play against Spain. We blocked their left flank, which is their strong point."