Monday, June 23, 2008

Euro 2008: Quarter-final 3

Russia 3-1 Netherlands (aet)
Another semi-final, another surprise result. The Netherlands, who had been the team of the tournament up until now, are out, and Russia have been upgraded from dark horses to genuine contenders. Guus Hiddink has further enhanced his reputation as someone who can produce the improbable, but a lot of the credit also has to go to Andrei Arshavin, who was once again pulling the strings for Russia and befuddling their opponents.

It wasn't all about Arshavin, though; the whole team has improved remarkably since the defeat against Spain in their opening game, picking up steam with a their comprehensive victory over Sweden. And they came out to win this one from the outset, forcing the Netherlands back by simply outplaying them. The Dutch team were supposed to be the favourites, but there was none of the caution from Russia that you might have expected. Although the Netherlands did manage to work themselves into the game more as the first half went on, they were still second best heading into half-time.

Marco van Basten attempted to invigorate his team by bringing on Robin van Persie for Dirk Kuyt, and the substitution did have an impact, as he created a couple of good chances. But it was Russia who scored in the 55th minute, as Sergei Semak's cross was volleyed into the net by Roman Pavlyuchenko, giving Edwin van der Sar no time to react.

That meant that the Netherlands had to really go all out in the search for a goal, but I think they don't react well to being allowed lots of possession rather than counter-attacking. They were mostly reduced to long-range shots as the Russian defence held firm, while it was Russia pulling them apart on the counter. Finally, in the 86th minute, Ruud van Nistelrooy found the equalizer, heading the ball in from Wesley Sneijder's free kick to send the game into extra-time.

That extra-time could have gone much differently had it not been for an unusual refereeing decision: Denis Kolodin was initially shown a second yellow card for a foul on Sneijder, but the referee then consulted with the linesman and decided that the ball had gone out of play first -- it hadn't -- and took the card back. Probably the wrong decision; but on the other hand, with the way Russia were playing, they might well have won even with only 10 men.

They were certainly the better team throughout extra time as it was. The Netherlands needed to build on the momentum of that late equalizer, but Russia just kept attacking, and the longer it went on, the more they were likely to win. And in the 112th minute, Dmitriy Torbinskiy popped up with the winning goal, a cross from -- who else? -- Arshavin that went over van der Sar and was tipped in at the far post. Arshavin killed the game off with a third goal a few minutes later, running onto a throw-in, getting behind the defenders and sending the ball through van der Sar's legs. (I feel a bit bad for Van der Sar; he'd kept his team in the game up till then and his defenders were pretty much useless.)

Anyway, it's nice to see an underdog team winning games like this -- rather than, you know, pulling a Greece -- but at the same time I'm a bit disappointed that the Netherlands are out. Partly because I'm wondering who will take up the mantle of wearing the tightest shirts at the tournament, now that both they and Portugal have been eliminated.

Bad hair of the day award: Another prize for man-of-the-match Andrei Arshavin. 27 years old and he still looks like his mother cuts his hair with a bowl and a pair of kitchen shears.

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