Friday, June 27, 2008

Euro 2008 Semi-final: Spain 3-0 Russia

These two teams met in their opening match of the tournament, with Spain convincing 4-1 winners. Since then, Russia had surprised everybody by not just recovering but improving enough to demolish the Netherlands in the quarter-finals, while Spain had been winning withut exactly bowling people over.

And yet this game finished with an almost identical three-goal victory for Spain. Russia apparently peaked in the previous round, while Spain have taken the confidence from their penalty win over Italy and are cruising into the final. (Not only have they vanquished their nemesis Italy, but now they've overcome the bad luck that was supposedly attached to their yellow away kits. Although those are still fugly. Whatever happened to the white away kits? I liked those. Especially in the rain. Um.)

The possession stats may show that it was pretty even, but they don't tell even close to the whole story, because it seemed like Spain spend two-thirds of the game in the Russian half. Maybe the more important statistic is shots on goal -- 11 for Spain versus just one for Russia. Iker Casillas had so little to do, he could've spent the game bedazzling the uneven hem of his self-tailored jersey and making fun of Sergio Ramos hair. Both of which are worthwhile ways to spend your time, really.

Spain were on top from the start, although Russia had a few good spells too. But Andrei Arshavin, who had supposedly become the player of the tournament over the past couple games, was a non-factor here, and because of that, Roman Pavlyuchenko was starved of service. It also helped Spain that, defensively, Sergio Ramos was having a much better game than their first match-up, winning the battle with Yuri Zhirkov on that wing.

Despite their dominance, Spain weren't able to break down the Russians at first. And they suffered a blow when David Villa pulled a muscle in his calf and had to be substituted after just half an hour. Cesc Fabregas came on for Villa, to play in the whole behind Fernando Torres, somewhat surprisingly as it meant a change of formation. But ironically, replacing a midfielder with a striker enabled Spain to find holes in the Russian defence and open up the play.

They were rewarded for their excellent play early in the second half, as Xavi opened the scoring in the 50th minute after Andres Iniesta played him into the box. Iniesta and Xavi haven't had the greatest of tournaments, in my opinion -- not awful, but not always scintillating -- but they were both pivotal in this game, not just in the buildup play but creating goals too.

Russia made a couple of substitutions almost immediately, bringing on first Diniyar Bilyaletdinov for Igor Semshov and then Dmitry Sychev for Ivan Saenko, as Guus Hiddink attempted to get his team back into the game. But it didn't help them much, as Spain continued to attack. Fernando Torres, in particular, had a couple of good chances but failed to score. I don't know if it was because of the wet pitch or what, but all game he seemed to keep slightly miscontrolling the ball as he turned to shoot.

Still, I was a bit surprised to see Torres taken off for Daniel Guiza in the 69th minute -- along with Xabi Alonso in place of Xavi -- because Guiza hasn't impressed me so far. And I say that despite the fact that he scored his second goal of the tournament just a few minutes later. Fabregas dinked the ball over the defence to him, and he took it down well on his chest before putting it past Igor Akinfeev with ease.

That second goal gave Spain a bit of a cushion, and they were able to just play keep-ball and sit a bit deeper. Still, they added to their lead further in the 82nd minute, after yet another lovely passing move, Iniesta out to Fabregas on the left, who slotted it into the centre for a nice finish David Silva. That was nice to see, because Silva deserved a goal for his good play all tournament, while Cesc has certainly done enough to guarantee himself a starting spot in the final -- unless, of course, Luis Aragones has another spell of insanity.

Russia's heads were already down after Spain's second goal and they were really out of it after the third, just waiting for the final whistle. I think they were worn down from 90 minutes of chasing Spain around trying to get the ball back. Still, they deserve credit for getting themselves this far, and with style -- while Spain, for once, have lived up to their pre-tournament hype. But they do have one game left in which to choke.

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