Spain stormed into the final of Euro 2008 with a three-goal demolition of Guus Hiddink’s Russia in Vienna and if Germany were watching Luis Aragones’s side from their team hotel, they’ll be acutely aware they have their work cut out on Sunday. An anaemic first-half in the Ernst-Happel Stadium quickly gave way to an enthralling display from the Spanish and once Xavi had given them a 50th-minute lead, they cut the Russians to ribbons to keep their dreams of winning their first major tournament since the European Championship in 1964 alive.
All three of Spain’s second-half strikes were easy on the eye but Guiza’s second on 73 minutes gets the nod, not least because it was the goal that broke Russia’s resistance. Sergio Ramos feed Cesc Fabregas on the edge of the box, who instinctively chipped over the Russian defence and Guiza was on hand to loft the bouncing ball over the stranded Igor Afinkeev and into the back of the net.
He had lit up the tournament before an eminently forgettable performance in Vienna and it summed up Roman Pavlyuchenko’s night when he failed to convert a rare Russian chance on the half hour mark. Superbly controlling a hopeful punt into the Spanish box on his chest, Pavlyuchenko brought the ball down but as the defence converged on the striker, he was only able to meekly poke his shot harmlessly wide of the post from no more than eight yards.
Afinkeev was blameless for all three of Spain’s goals but he did distinguish himself in the second-half when he denied Fabregas from long range. The Arsenal midfielder surged forward and unleashed a venomous, swerving shot from 30 yards out but the Russian keeper watched the shot all the way and was able to beat it out with his right hand.
It was a decent-natured match throughout but Konstantin Zyryanov did manage to lower the tone in the first-half with a raking challenge on David Silva that fortunately did not cause any permanent damage. Silva cleverly let the ball run across his body to deceive Zyryanov but the Russian opted to follow through with his tackle regardless and raked his studs across the Spaniard, sending him crashing him to the deck in an inelegant heap.
It may seem churlish to single out Xavi after he scored Spain’s first but the Barcelona midfielder produced a real howler in the first-half and privately he will be internally grateful that his performance will be remembered for the goal rather than the gaffe. Breaking into the Russian area and latching onto an Iniesta pass, Xavi prepared to shoot but his boot only succeeded in making contact with the damp Vienna air, missing the ball completely and no doubt doing some damage to his pride.
Spain’s three goalscorers, plus influential substitute Cesc Fabregas, will the players basking in the spotlight and public adulation in the run-up to the final but the real star turn for Luis Aragones’ side was Marcos Senna, who provided the platform for his more creative team-mates to forge forward. Senna sat supreme in front of his back four, strangling every Russian foray in the last third of the pitch and he single-handedly laid the foundation for his side’s success.
After just games in the tournament, Andrei Arshavin was being hailed as one of the best players in Europe but based on his anonymous performance against the Spanish, it may be some time before we hear from him again. The Russian playmaker was invisible for 90 minutes and whether Barcelona are still prepared to part with their hard-earned euros to prise him away from Zenit St Petersburg remains to be seen. Lacked invention, commitment and passion.
THE TWO GAFFERS
The Spanish coach turns 70 next month and if he can lead his side to victory over Germany in the final, it could be one hell of a birthday party. Spain looked toothless in the early exchanges but when David Silva was forced off with an injury after just 34 minutes, Aragones resisted the temptation to bring on a replacement striker and threw on Fabregas. The introduction of the Arsenal midfielder changed the whole complexion of the match and for that the wily old Spanish coach deserves great credit.
It’s hard to criticise a coach for sticking with the tactics and formation that got his team into the semi-finals in the first place but Hiddink was slow to react when it became obvious Arshavin was having no influence on proceedings and that Pavlyuchenko was in desperate need of support up front. Russia looked compact and occasionally threatening in the first-half but bereft of ideas in the second but Hiddink left it too late to try and make an impact with his bench. A hugely experience and successful coach, he was too reactive than proactive in Vienna.
Spain’s Euro 2008 campaign was kicked off in style, a 4-1 thumping of semifinal opponents Russia courtesy of a David Villa hattrick announcing their title credentials. The remaining two games were more cagey and somewhat lacking in excitement, but Spain completed their clean sweep and progressed to the quarters as group winners.
Russia’s campaign kicked off four days later in a tough game against Greece, where Hiddink’s men won 1-0 and that (coupled with Sweden’s defeat to Spain) kept them in the tournament. It’s fair to say that since then, Russia have improved as the tournament has progressed, taking apart both Sweden and then hot favourites Netherlands with ease.
The Russia Spain will meet is quite different from that of 2 weeks ago. Hiddink’s men have momentum and more importantly a confidence that they can win the Euros as long as they can keep playing to their potential.
Spain failed to impress much against Italy, although to be fair they were they better side throughout normal time. Against Spain all teams so far have sat back and closed ranks – which has led to two hard-fought 2-1 wins in the group stages and a penalties win over Italy. Russia will, like they did in the opening game, have a go at Spain and for that reason alone you might see an open and entertaining game.
Russia are a changed side (as teams become when infused with confidence) and their win over Netherlands – when they nullified the Dutch counter-attacking threat and poked holes in defence – was an education in football style. Spain are overall a better team than the Dutch and it will be interesting to see whether Hiddink modifies his team’s playing style to adapt to Spain’s pace threat or if he’ll push up regardless with a view to disturbing Spain’s passing rhythm.
The Russians have a weakness against the long-ball but when allowed space on the pitch the same players can pass, pass, pass and then smash a goal past you. It’ll be interesting to see if Spain will resort to hitting long balls and whether the Spanish midfield will be able to retain possession against Russia – because barring mistakes, everything comes down to Spain’s ability to play keep-ball and stay in control.
Soccerlens will be back after the game with the match report and video highlights.
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