Spain emerged victors in the semi-final clash with Russia and many were surprised that a 3-goal deficit still separates both teams. After a baptism of fire in the group stages and a comprehensive 3-1 victory against Netherlands, the Russians had established their title credentials convincingly.
Arshavin, who burst onto the international scene after sitting out a two-match ban impressed all and sundry with his effervescent skills. Whenever he ran with the ball, he was virtually untouchable, much to the chagrin of the highly acclaimed Oranje players.
However, Arshavin was quiet as a mouse against Spain. It could be due to the torrential rain, little support from a disjointed team and a technically superior Spain who got their tactics right.
Despite this defeat, Russia can leave Euro 2008 with their heads held high. Hardly impressive in the qualifying rounds, they scraped through, after rebounding from a lackluster defeat in Israel, to eke a victory in Andorra, and received a helping hand from Croatia at the expense of England.
Fortunately, Guus Hiddink built his reputation as a world-class coach on solid grounds; several nations, including Netherlands, Korea and Australia had benefited from his football philosophy and training. The Russian football federation are rightly impressed to offer him a contract extension regardless of the outcome in Euro 2008.
Hiddink’s insistence on a high-tempo passing game makes for great entertainment and raised expectations that miracles can be created out of a squad lacking in depth and quality. Russian fans can cheer their team for bringing home the bronze medal. Hiddink’s job of elevating Russia from a footballing minnow is far from finished and though his curse of never getting past semi-finals continue, due respect has to be given to a better prepared Russia in World Cup 2010.
Apparently, Spain had done their homework to dismiss the Russian threat. They were determined not to follow the footsteps of the shadow-chasing Netherlands whose impressive, fluid attacking style gave them a 100% record in the “Group of Death” but yet they lost steam at the critical stage.
Luis Aragonés predicted before Euro 2008 that Spain lacked two things to become champions – a good manager and an elusive stroke of luck. Spain already possess the first ingredient as Aragones is tactically astute and adjusts his game plan as the circumstances dictate.
He understands the strength of his squad and when to use the right players. Neither is he afraid of incurring the wrath of his superstars - Torres had a face like thunder when he was substituted and Sergio Ramos was roundly criticized for indiscipline but still the team spirit is intact and players remain motivated, a tribute to his man-management skills.
As for luck, Spain are blessed with plenty of it in Euro 2008. They were battered by Russia before prevailing 4-1 with David Villa scoring a hat-trick. Against a stubborn Sweden, Torres scored from a simple free-kick and Villa plundered in the dying seconds. Aragones fielded second-stringers against Greece but still cantered to a 2-1 comeback win. The quarter-final against Italy was goalless and Casillas saved the day in the penalty shoot-out.
Spain’s new-found killer instinct in scoring late goals and confidence to control games could be the final pieces of the jigsaw to end their 44-year wait for a major trophy. Aragones strengthened their self-belief when he said: “You mustn’t play better than a team and then lose to them. If you can’t win a match, at least don’t lose it. If you’ve got a goalkeeper like Iker Casillas, then you’ve always got a chance.”
Indeed, Spain are awakening tactically. They learned to adopt a calm and patient game of possession while waiting for their opponents to tire out and then capitalize on their mistakes. Their seven goals out of eleven scored in the second half bears testimony to this change in strategy. If the match goes to penalty shoot-outs, they have absolute faith in the safe hands of Casillas. Displaying steely nerves will be instrumental against the cold and efficient German machine.
In the 34th minute, Spain’s hopes were cast in doubt when leading scorer David Villa sustained an injury but it was a blessing in disguise as Cesc Fabregas replaced him. Russia were beginning to wrest the upper hand and finding an answer to the twin terrors of Villa and Torres. However, Fabregas’s arrival threw Hiddink’s plan into disarray.
The midfield talisman who had contributed three assists, one goal and a penalty shoot-out winner, provided the extra spark in midfield. Surging ahead (as he had done so often for Arsenal), he forced Russia on the back foot and created wide spaces for his team-mates to run into.
Since Fabregas was involved in almost all of Spain’s attacks, owing to his ability to split defenses with precision, the Russians were forced to put extra men on him and that was the beginning of their downfall. Xavi and Andreas Iniesta were unshackled and interchanged their positions freely. The increased mobility in Spain’s forward play overwhelmed Russia and it was only a matter of time before the castle fell.
In the 50th minute, Iniesta brought the ball into the box and released a ****. Xavi arrived unmarked to guide the ball past the keeper. Fabregas could have got on the score sheet as he fired a 35-yard blitzer, forcing Akinfeev to tip the ball over for a corner. In the 73rd minute, Fabregas set up Daniel Guiza with an excellent pass and nine minutes later, he showed great vision to find David Silva in the box who then rifled a shot into the left corner.
The critical aspect for Spain’s success is possession. With the ball at your feet, you are less tired while your opponent runs themselves into the ground trying to win the ball back. Of course, hoarding the ball is meaningless if you do not have players who can control the game’s tempo, pass the ball well and get into the right positions. The Spanish had experience and class in all respects.
Goals from Xavi and Daniel Guiza were about immaculate positioning as Fabregas can weaves his magic all day but somebody has to be at the other end to latch on to his passes. Germany had to watch out for Spain’s ability to transform possession into goals.
On the other hand, without seeing much of the ball, the mercurial Arshavin was totally subduded. Arshavin had little freedom of expression as the Spanish breathed down his neck whenever he had possession. He is restricted to making harried passes and with access to the front line of Roman Pavlyuchenko cordoned off, Russia became a sitting duck.
Aragones refused to give Fabregas all the credit because there are other worthy individuals in his team. Guiza who is fielded mostly as a substitute already had two goals to his name and players like Xabi Alonso, Santi Cazorla, Andreas Iniesta are versatile and reliable when called upon to perform.
Other unsung heroes included Carlos Puyol (Barcelona’s captain) who was the destroyer of the Russian playmaker, Arshavin. Marcos Senna was also a stabilizing force in front of the back-four and equally adept in making passes to the front line.
As for Germany, I am concerned about their championship form, the smooth, reliable German car which we are familiar with, had instead jump-started its way into the finals. They won the first group match against Poland (no great shakes) but humiliated by Croatia and resulted in a confidence crisis. A do-or-die derby battle against host Austria was then settled by Ballack’s free kick.
Germany eliminated Portugal 3-2 in the quarter-finals and survived a ferocious Turkey onslaught in the last four. Though both matches end with the same score line, the victory was much more comfortable against Portugal. It was a different story against Turkey, full credit to the inspirational Fatih Terim for making the best out of an impossible situation.
Ravaged by injuries and suspension, Turkey defied all odds to produce an exceptional performance full of grit, desire and quality. In fact, they should have established a strong advantage by half-time. Germany struggled to stay in the game and barely deserved to win but once again, they reached a major final as if it is their destiny.
In the 12th minute, Colin Kazim-Richards held his head in anguish when he rattled the bar with a powerful shot that left German keeper Jens Lehmann well beaten. He was denied by the woodwork again 10 minutes later - but this time Ugur was lurking to scramble in the rebound through the legs of Lehmann.
Stunned by Turkey’s desire to dominate proceedings, Germany responded quickly when Lukas Podolski crossed from the left flank and Bastian Schweinsteiger connected the square pass at close range. Lehmann was having a torrid time till then and he had to scramble back hurriedly after misjudging Altintop’s free-kick to turn the ball over the bar.
Turkey continued to set the match rhythm and Ugur tested Lehmann once more with a shot after a scintillating run. Turkey’s fighting spirit and refusal to accept defeat means they are at their most dangerous when their backs are against the wall. Indeed, they again showed their incredible comeback streak as they equalized again with four minutes left.
Miroslav Klose headed Germany in front after 79 minutes, but Semih Senturk levelled for Turkey soon after. Phillip Lahm who was accountable for Turkey’s two goals turned hero with his last-minute winner as he stole in on Hitzlsperger’s pass to beat keeper Recber. The Turks could only look on in disbelief as they were given a taste of their own medicine while Germany progressed into the Euro 2008 final.
It is difficult to destroy Germany, not least because of the collective strength. They depend less on individual talents, but more on a healthy team spirit, industry and resilience under pressure. Nobody is deemed as the super star, so the whole team win and lose together.
Michael Ballack has been jinxed for four major tournaments and he will surely have something to say about clinching the title this time round. He has class and determination and he revels in the responsibilities and expectations of such occasions. I know he will be there to drive the team forward by setting the right examples. But to thrust a nation’s hopes on one man is unfair.
Fact is, Spanish defenses look more solid than Germany. The two goals which Germany conceded against Turkey resulted from embarrassing lapses. Mertesacker and Metzelder lacked rapport and Philip Lahm did not discharge his defensive duties well. He was more interested in joining the attacks and fortunately, he made amends by scoring the winner during his late foray.
Puyol and Marchena are the stronger pairing and in terms of goalkeeping abilities, I would rate Casillas above Jens Lehmann. Yes, Lemann is the weakest link and I just don’t know when he will commit a gaffe and drop the ball in front of a Spanish player. Germany can only hope that the midfield dominates and the front line gets an early goal to relieve pressure at the back.
Spain have already fulfilled my earlier hopes of seeing them in the finals and I believe this represents their best chance to lay claim on the European Championships. Though Germany have a near perfect scoring record in penalty shoot-outs, they will be eager to settle the match by normal time as Lehmann doesn’t inspire confidence between the posts.
Morale is high in the Spanish camp after clearing the Italian hurdle, whom they had not beaten in a competitive match in 88 years. It is even more amazing that they did it in the pressure cauldron of a shoot-out which has never been their forte. Breaking the mental block, they are more than ready to dispel the German myth too.
For fans who love attacking football, they can expect to feast on this no-holds barred match. Spain to win, anyone?