Three thoughts after Spain eliminated Italy on penalty kicks (after a scoreless tie) to set up a semifinal date against Russia:
• After so much heartbreak over the decades, Spain deserved this. It wasn’t memorable soccer, but the result will be unforgettable for Spanish fans. Spain attacked more, created more chances and simply outplayed the Italians, who executed their defensive gameplan but sent almost nobody forward and generated only one really good scoring chance (when Mauro Camoranesi’s screamer was stopped by Iker Casillas in the 61st minute). Bottom line: the penalty-kick shootout gave the Spaniards yet another chance to cement their rep as chokers, but with the exception of Dani Güiza (see below) they showed no case of nerves and took their spot-kicks with a stunning sense of calm. Casillas earns my Man of the Match honors for his two diving saves on Daniele De Rossi and Antonio Di Natale. You can breathe now, Spain. Italy’s out.
• Italy was a major disappointment today. Anytime a world champion decides that its primary strategy is to mass players behind the ball is a discouraging day for the sport. There’s no doubt that Italy was effective doing so, but I wish the Azzurri would have thrown outside backs Fabio Grosso and Gianluca Zambrotta forward more often. We know they’re capable of that (just look at the Romania game) and we know that Luca Toni is essentially worthless if they don’t, but it was clear that Roberto Donadoni was going conservative on us without Andrea Pirlo in the lineup and the Italians would let Spain bring the game to them. Then there’s Toni: the big target-man finishes Euro 2008 with zero goals in four games—and a serious question mark over whether he’s good enough to be a consistent scorer at this level on this team.
• Dani Güiza should never come on for Fernando Torres again unless Torres needs to have his leg amputated. What was Luis Aragonés thinking when he took off Torres for Güiza in the 85th minute? Torres was still active and dangerous, and Güiza (as we learned in extra-time) was out of his depth. Just before penalties I told my pals Joel and Jon-Claud: I don’t know who’ll win, but I guarantee you Güiza will screw up—and Torres’s head will explode on the bench. Sure enough, Güiza botched his kick. (Unfortunately, we didn’t get a replay of Torres’s reaction, which would have been priceless.)
Through-balls: Now Spain will get a rematch against Russia in the semifinals (nice job setting up the brackets, UEFA). But don’t draw too many lessons from Spain’s 4-1 opening-game blowout. Russia is a completely different team with Andrei Arshavin (who didn’t play in the first game), and Arshavin makes his teammates better, too. Spain will have to protect against overconfidence ... Spain’s David Silva is starting to grow on me. He was inches wide on two occasions today, and he has a boundless source of energy ... I know Donadoni has a contract beyond Euro 2008, but does anyone think his job will be in trouble over the Azzurri’s performance? It’s not like they set the world on fire in these four games ... I know soccer isn’t entertainment for most Italians, but it is for us neutrals. That’s why I’m a heck of a lot more excited for a Spain-Russia semi than I would have been for Russia-Italy ... Given the quick hooks for Xavi and Andrés Iniesta today, I’m wondering if either of their starting spots might be in jeopardy for the Russia game. Cesc in particular deserves consideration, if you ask me ... After 16 straight glorious days of soccer we’re finally getting a couple days off before the semifinals start on Wednesday. I don’t think I’ll know what to do with myself ... Just wondering: does anyone else see the shots of Aragonés gesticulating on the sidelines and think he’s just another old man saying: Get the !@#$ out of my yard!
Do you think the monkey is finally off Spain’s back? Or will it only get worse if the Spaniards can’t knock off a Russian team that it beat 4-1 already? Who’s your favorite to win Euro 2008 now that we’re down to four teams: Germany, Spain, Turkey, Russia. Please post your comments below and make sure to come back on Wednesday for the next edition of the Euro 2008 Blog ...