Three thoughts after Russia’s 3-1 win over the Netherlands in extra-time sends the Russians into the Euro 2008 semifinals:
• We’re seeing a new world soccer superstar emerging from one of the most unlikely of sources. He’s only played in two games, but Andrei Arshavin has suddenly replaced Spain’s David Villa as the headline act of Euro 2008. Russia’s stunning (and deserving) upset of the once-rampant Dutch was won on the feet of Arshavin, the 27-year-old playmaker who punished the Dutch defense all game long with his speed, creativity and tireless effort. Twelve years ago in a European championship quarterfinal I got to see the emerging genius of France’s Zinédine Zidane for the first time. Now, in another Euro quarterfinal against Holland, I got the same kind of adrenalin rush watching Arshavin shred the Dutch defense. Arshavin has a long ways to go if he wants to be the next Zidane, but there’s something special about seeing the rise of a great new talent on the world stage.
• Russia can win Euro 2008. As successful as miracle-working coach Guus Hiddink has been in major tournaments, he has never won one of them, but I think this Russian team has the talent and the go-for-broke chutzpah to win it all here. Cynics might call the Russians naïve, but in many ways it’s an advantage at this point. I couldn’t believe the TV broadcasters were saying at the start of extra-time that Russia should just play for penalty kicks. Nobody told Arshavin, apparently. On the decisive goal, he took a great ball at midfield from Yuri Zhirkov (another Russian revelation) and burned André Ooijer 1v1 down the left side before lofting a delicate lob to Dmitri Torbinski, who beat the ball-watching Gio van Bronckhorst and Rafael van der Vaart to the spot to tap it in. Remarkable stuff.
• If anyone was acting naïve toward the end, it was the Dutch. First there was the ball-watching by Van Bronckhorst and Van der Vaart on the second Russian goal. But there was a total Dutch collapse on the third goal. First Ibrahim Afellay botches a harmless goal-kick pass from Edwin van der Sar, muffing it out of bounds like a grade-schooler under zero pressure. Then the Dutch defense relaxes for some reason as Aleksandr Anyukov rushes in and uncorks a quick long throw-in to Arshavin. It doesn’t matter that Arshavin is in an offside position (you can’t be offside on a throw-in), which the Dutch defense doesn’t seem to realize until it’s too late. Arshavin’s through. Arshavin scores. Game over.
Through-balls: I’m not sure that losing Denis Kolodin for the semifinals (to yellow cards) will be such a bad thing, considering he’s good for at least one defensive howler a game ... An early scribble in my notebook: Who kidnapped the Dutch players? I know how much pressure there is to win (and win with style) in Holland, and Marco van Basten’s team played like a side that was afraid to lose. What happened to that majestic midfield which created so many chances in the run of play during the group stage? The only Dutch threats against Russia came on set-pieces.
Do you think Arshavin is the player of the tournament so far? Can Russia win Euro 2008? And what on earth happened to the Netherlands? Please post your comments below and come back tomorrow for the latest edition of the Euro 2008 Blog ...