Sunday, June 15, 2008

Euro 2008: Day 8

Spain 2-1 Sweden
I expected this to be a tougher game for Spain, because Sweden are more disciplined team and weren't likely to push forward and leave space for them the way Russia did in the opening match. Although Spain had the vast majority of both the possession and shots on goal, it was more difficult for them to get in behind the defenders and create clear chances (plus, all the Swedish players were about a foot taller than the Spanish ones). But they took the lead after just 15 minutes -- from a corner rather than open play -- with Fernando Torres sticking a boot out to turn it into the net. Let's hope nobody broke anything celebrating this time, although from the way they all piled on top of each other, you never know.

Sweden almost equalized immediately, but Johan Elmander's shot went into the side netting; a few minutes later, Henrik Larsson attempted to chip the keeper but it went just over the crossbar. And then Carles Puyol went off with a thigh strain, which is a bit worrisome because he's often the only Spanish player who remembers that he's actually supposed to defend. Sweden took advantage of Spain's defensive frailty to equalize after half an hour, as Zlatan Ibrahimovic held off Sergio Ramos in the box to turn and shoot low past Iker Casillas. (Saint Iker, for once, looked as if he maybe could have done better, but Ramos was certainly useless.)

Spain, I think, were a bit shocked by the goal, and Sweden looked like the stronger team as the first half wound down. Spain did have a good shout for a penalty ignored just before halftime, when David Silva was absolutely flattened in the box by Elmander, but really they were doing well just to have held out at 1-1. They could also count themselves fortunate that Ibrahimovic had to be substituted at halftime, presumably because his knee was playing up again.

Spain started the second half much better, although still not well enough. Luis Aragones gambled by using up his two remaining subs and sending on Cesc Fabregas and Santi Cazorla (dear commentator: NOT CAZOLRA) for Xavi and Andres Iniesta in an attempt to force a breakthrough. The changes did have an impact, as Spain had a series of chances, but they were all foiled through a combination of good defending by Sweden and Spanish players trying to take one touch too many. Learn from Arsenal, boys: Pretty passes are nice, but they're no good if you don't score. Just ask Cesc.

The longer the second half went on, the more opportunities Spain had and the more they got frustrated by their inability to score. (What they really should have been frustrated about was that they left themselves exposed at the back more than once.) But finally, in the second minute of stoppage time, David Villa scored the winner. He ran onto a rare long ball forward from Joan Capdevilla, beating two defenders to the ball, and sidefooted it past the keeper into the far corner with a great finish. Spain deserved the win, overall -- they could have crumpled after Sweden scored -- but I think there are still some question marks about their ability to beat the really tough teams in this tournament.

Russia 1-0 Greece
Time for those of us who aren't fans of anti-football -- or of excessive honking on the Danforth -- to celebrate: Greece are out of Euro 2004. The only team to be eliminated without scoring a goal, although they could get themselves a consolation prize in their meaningless final game against Spain.

Actually, I should give the Greeks credit for their contribution to a game that I thought was going to be absolutely horrible but turned out to be pretty good. Not always the best quality football on display, but entertaining nonetheless. It probably helped that Russia took the lead after half an hour, as Antonis Nikopolidis ended his international career with a goalkeeping howler, charging out of his net and then just standing and watching as Sergei Semak hooked the ball back across the net for Konstantin Zyrianov to tap in.

That forced the Greeks to come out and attack more, although at the expense of their defensive solidity. Roman Pavlyuchenko had a series of chances to extend Russia's lead, but wasted them all, mostly through wayward finishing plus the odd offside flag. Angelos Charisteas did manage to put the ball in the net for Greece in the 86th minute, but it was ruled out for offside -- a very close call, I think.

Russia will have playmaker Andrei Arshavin back for their decisive final match against Sweden, which should help them up front. The question is whether their defence is as competent as it looked against Greece, or as hopeless as it was against Spain.

Next up in Group D: Spain v. Greece and Russia v. Sweden, both at 2:30 pm (ET) on Wednesday

Bad hair of the day award: I had a tough time choosing between Sotiris Kyrgiakos and Giannis Amanatidis for Greece, but I have to go with Amanitidis (he's the one on the right) because it looks like he hasn't been near a barber since Euro 2004, whereas Kyrgiakos may have actually shaved recently.

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