Three thoughts after Russia’s 2-0 win over Sweden sends the Russians into the quarterfinals from Group D behind Spain (a 2-1 winner over Greece):
• It’s amazing how much of a difference one player can make. I knew Russia’s Andrei Arshavin could make an impact after missing the last two games to suspension, but I had no idea he would absolutely take over the match. Not only did Arshavin score one goal and provide the key through-ball on the other, but he showed another quality that defines superstars: He made his teammates better. It was as if forward Roman Pavlyuchenko was a completely different player against the Swedes, finishing his goal with a cold-blooded efficiency that he’d been missing in the first two group games. I’ll tell you something: Arshavin and attacking left back Yuri Zhirkov are a gas to watch, and I can’t wait to see Guus Hiddink’s relentless Russians take on the Netherlands in the quarters.
• For me, this game was the most stunning of Euro 2008 so far. Reasonable minds can disagree, but the Russian attack completely dominated an experienced Swedish team that probably should have tied Spain. Think about it: Sweden only had one decent chance on goal in the entire game, and that came out of a half-chance header from Henrik Larsson that struck the crossbar. Otherwise the Swedes were impotent. For its part Russia created chance after chance—and, not coincidentally, two of the best goals of the tournament, clinics in teamwork, speed and skill. I just didn’t think they had it in them to blow out Sweden like this, which is why I’d say this game was more stunning than (in order) Croatia over Germany (we at least knew the Croats were capable of this despite their opening-game issues); the Netherlands over France (in which the French had chances and went toe-to-toe with the Dutch); and the Netherlands over Italy (in which Italy had chances of its own). Sweden had no chances—and, it became increasingly clear, no chance to survive the Russian onslaught.
• Guus Hiddink is a rich man’s Bora Milutinovic. What more can you say about the Dutchman’s ability to get the most out of an upstart team? Hiddink has never failed to advance to the knockout rounds of a major tournament, and his recent resume looks like this: Holland (1998 World Cup semis); South Korea (2002 World Cup semis); Australia (2006 World Cup second round); Russia (Euro 2008 second round). (And we’re not even counting the PSV Eindhoven team he took to the 2005 Champions League semis.) Hiddink has mastered how to motivate players in short-term tournaments, but he also knows how to build teams over the longer haul, identifying talent (especially young talent), keeping one or two older players for leadership and experience and installing a balls-out attacking style. Bottom line: the man gets results when it counts.
Through-balls: Blog whipping-boy Olof Mellberg got absolutely roasted on the Russians’ second goal ... You got a sense Arshavin might have a blinder when his first touch was an inch-perfect 70-yard diagonal ball to Pavlyuchenko in the third minute. Insane ... Can you imagine the fireworks that we’re going to see when Russia meets the Netherlands? Hiddink knows the Dutch as well as anyone, and you can be certain the Russians will meet attacking firepower with attacking firepower. Who needs defense when you can have a 5-3 game? ... Nice to see the classic Samba E Go! being revived as the in-stadium soundtrack of choice whenever a Euro 2008 goal is scored. You might recall the same thing being done during the 1999 Women’s World Cup in the U.S. ... From the How Soccer Explains the World file: Does anyone else wonder if the rise of Russian soccer has some direct links to the rise in world oil prices? One, the Russians can afford Hiddink, and two, the Russian league has been able to buy some high-priced talent for the young Russian players to play (and learn) alongside ... Swedish coach Lars Lagerbäck looks a lot like any mid-level engineer at Saab or Volvo—who, come to think of it, probably would have done just as good a job preparing Sweden for this game. The Swedes had no fire at all from the opening whistle ... Gotta say I miss the comedy that came with the Swedes having co-head coaches a few years ago. How come no American sports teams have tried that one? ... From the Dept. of Immaturity: the Blog wife laughed hysterically when I got excited about the Russian left back. "The guy's name is Zhirkov???" ... I’m trying to figure out why I picked Sweden to win this game when my pre-tournament picks had Russia getting to the quarterfinals instead. Dumb dumb dumb.
Do you think this was the most stunning game of Euro 2008? Can the Russian defense cope with the Netherlands? How many of you are doubling up with Argentina-Brazil tonight?
Please post your comments below, and check back tomorrow for the latest edition of the Euro 2008 Blog ...