Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Euro 2008: Day 4

Spain 4-1 Russia
Oh, Spain. This is why I both love you and hate you: the brilliant attacking play, the significantly less than brilliant defending... It was all sort of reminiscent of the World Cup in 2006, when they beat Ukraine 4-0 in their opening match, won their group easily, and then proceeded to get beaten by France at the first knockout stage. (Which is exactly what could happen here, depending on the results over in Group C. Oh joy.)

Luis Aragones made the bold decision to start with a 4-4-2 formation rather than the variations on 4-3-3 they'd been playing up until now, with Fernando Torres and David Villa partnered up front and Marcos Senna doing the dirty work behind the trio of pint-sized midfielders. And the combination of Villa and Torres worked beautifully, exemplified by Spain's first goal: Torres broke through the defence and squared the ball to Villa for a simple finish. Villa added a second goal for Spain just before halftime, with a perfectly timed run onto a pass from Andres Iniesta (possibly the world's palest Spaniard), leaving the keeper helpless as he slotted the ball through Igor Akinfeev's legs. Spain still like to ping the ball around midfield maybe a little too much, but they also seem to have learned about the effectiveness of letting their strikers run at the defence.

Fernando Torres didn't get as many chances to do that as he might have liked, but he had a good game nonetheless before he was hauled off early in the second half (still carrying a bit of a knock on his ankle). Aragones, meanwhile, got to show off the array of talent he'd left on the bench to start with, bringing on first Cesc Fabregas and then Santi Cazorla and Xabi Alonso. And it was Fabregas who set up the third goal in Villa's hat-trick with a great diagonal ball, Villa cutting inside the defender and then wrong-footing the keeper. God knows that Villa can have his off days too, but based on this game, he's an utterly lethal finisher when he wants to be.

Spain's problems, as you might've expected, were at the back. Russia was the technically inferior team -- taking two touches or more to do what the Spaniards would have done in one touch or two -- but when they did get forward as far as the 18-yard box, the Spanish defence looked pretty shaky. A lot of times it seemed like they were all just waiting for someone else to step in and clear the ball, and they were saved by the post at least once. How Carles Puyol wasn't out there cracking heads together I don't know. (Although I should point out that I don't think Iker Casillas had to make any really spectacular saves.) Sergio Ramos, in particular, seemed to have forgotten that being a defender means, you know, tackling and stuff like that. Maybe he was worried about messing up his hair.

Anyway, they finally paid for it with five minutes to go: A Russian corner, flicked on and then headed home by Roman Pavlyuchenko at the back post, with Joan Capdevilla caught flat-footed. Their consolation goal was cancelled out in the 90th minute, though, by Cesc Fabregas's first international goal as he headed in the rebound from Xavi's volley.

So much for my prediction that Russia could surprise people in this tournament. They may still be good enough to beat either Sweden or Greece, but that's hardly a ringing endorsement. As for Spain: learn to defend, please. I beg you. Because David Villa and his idiotic soul-patch are not going to pop up and score a hat-trick in every game. The happiest people after this result, actually, might be in Valencia, because now they can add a few million more pounds on to his valuation. Gentlemen, start your chequebooks.

Sweden 2-0 Greece
Okay, I still don't understand how Greece won this back in 2004. Because they have basically the same team, the same coach, the same tactics, and yet they were essentially useless against Sweden, who are not exactly one of the giants of the footballing world. I realize that last time, Greece scored most of their goals from set pieces, but those were pretty mediocre here, and their main strategy seemed to be passing the ball sluggishly back and forth across their defence.

Sweden, on the other hand, were okay but hardly stellar for the first hour or so -- the highlight was probably a header off the crossbar by Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the first half. Finally, though, in the 65th minute, Ibrahimovic produced a moment of brilliance, collecting a throw-in and exchanging passes with Henrik Larsson before slicing his shot past Antonis Nikopolidis into the top corner of the net. It was his first international goal for more than two years, and also probably the goal of the tournament so far. (And maybe a bit of payback after a Greek player kicked him in the nuts earlier in the game.)

The Swedes put the game away with a second goal five minutes later, scrambled into the net by Petter Hansson -- who'd almost headed the ball into his own goal not long before that -- after a couple attempted shots by Freddie Ljungberg and Johan Elmander. Certainly not the prettiest goal, but it still counts. Greece were never likely to get back into the game after that; they did push forward more, but it was hard to see them scoring one goal, let alone two.

Next up in Group D: sweden v. Spain and Greece v. Russia, both on Saturday

Bad hair of the day award: Joint honours go to Carles Puyol and Sergio Ramos. Puyol's hair was less insane than usual thanks to the rain, but Ramos' just bugs me. You're not starring in a Pantene commercial, Sergio; just cut it already.

1 comment:

mirror~me said...

as much as i resent this...i have this strange peculiar feelings, the spaniards might just make it to the finals!
& totally agree with you on the hair bit! lol!
p/s: awesome scribblings btw ;)