The way the TV boys have been referring to Russia and Sweden throughout the tournament, you would think they are, respectively, a bunch of raw 18-year-olds recently plucked from a schoolboy international, and a plodding group of 35-plus footballing geriatrics on their last legs. In truth this is a complete exaggeration, but watching the two sides last night you would have been forgiven for believing the hype.
The curtain came down on the group stage of Euro 2008 with a frightening display by Guus Hiddink’s Russians that displayed all the qualities one associates with young players; pace, imagination, enthusiasm, and panic infront of goal. Sweden on the other hand looked like a collection of ageing limbs, making a rather ungraceful exit from the international stage.
The facts though, are that the youngest player on either starting XI was Russia’s 22-year-old goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, and that Russia fielded two outfield players under 25 to Sweden’s one. Sweden’s starting line-up contained six thirty-somethings to Russia’s three, but this is misleading as only one on each side was older than 31. Also, Russia’s two central strikers, Andrei Arshavin and Roman Pavlyuchenko, are of identical ages, 27 and 26 respectively, to two of Sweden’s attackers, Johan Elmander and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Given these stats, I don’t think Sweden should be allowed to get away with age being cited as an excuse for their pedestrian display.
Perhaps what we were watching was a nostalgic throwback to the communist era, and the Swedes were actually the victims of a sneaky Russian sabotage. They certainly had the appearance of playing in mysteriously leaden boots, and as anyone who has ever watched an American film from the 1980s will know, these pesky Reds will try anything.
The reality is that the Swedes were totally outclassed by a more confident and skilful side, and the Russian victory was yet another one at Euro 2008 for smart attacking adventure over dour defensive pragmatism, making it so far the exact opposite of Euro 2004. How Sweden got away with a deficit of only two is perhaps the only worrying aspect of the game for Guus Hiddink, but he will prefer to concentrate on his side’s stunning exhibition of passing and movement around the box that has so far only been matched in this tournament by Croatia.
Russia were able to field Arshavin, their most feared attacking player, for the first time in the tournament, and the confidence his presence seemed to give the rest of the side was the noticeable difference between this Russian display and those seen against Spain and Greece. In the early stages against the Spanish, Russia definitely gave some strong hints at their attacking abilities, but quickly seemed to lose heart after defensive errors cost them goals. Against the Greeks, they appeared nervous about over-committing in a game that could have seen them exit the tournament early. Last night, they played with the freedom of a team that felt they were fully-equipped to dispose of their opponents.
From the off, Russia tore a supposedly tough Swedish rearguard to shreds, creating clearcut chances for fun, and getting so many men forward that often their biggest problems were getting under each others feet, and having to hold a debate to decide who would shoot. The two goals that were scored were both of sublime brilliance, and had they been scored by the Dutch we would never have heard the end of it. The first was a swift one touch passing move which saw the ball worked first wide then back into the centre, leaving the static defenders resembling yellow training cones. The second was, in my opinion, the goal of the tournament so far; a quite stunning counter from a Swedish defensive free kick aimlessly punted into the Russian half. The kick fell straight to a Red shirt just over the half-way line, and within seconds the ball had been ruthlessly transferred in four movements into the back of the net, finished effortlessly by Arshavin, with experienced defenders looking on in despair.
Now, I’m going to try a little analysis here:
It’s interesting to compare the second Russian goal to the one scored by Wesley Sneijder for Holland against Italy, as that goal was repeated over and over again for days and presented to us as an example of the perfect counter-attacking goal.
Granted the Dutch move began from their own goal line, so covered almost half a pitch more ground than the Russian one, but as the move evolves you can see that none of the Dutch players are marked. The key ball in the move is the one that releases Van Bronckhorst on the left wing, but because Van Bronckhorst’s run from his own penalty area hadn’t been tracked by a single Italian, he was in acres of space, meaning that the ball to find him needed to be nothing better than a hoof into space. From there, Van Bronckhorst overhits his cross, but the unmarked Kuyt has enough time to backpedal and nod the ball down to the unmarked Sneijder, whose first time volley beats Buffon for pace at the near post.
The Russian goal is better becasue it has so much less margin for error. When the hopeless Swedish free kick lands at the feet of the Russian player there is a conventional formation infront of him, he has three attacking players ahead, all marked, and there is a spare defender who has just taken the free kick who can come across to cover if necessary. The attacking players all begin to move in different directions, pulling their markers out of position, and the three passes that are played to get the ball to the goalscorer are all placed on a sixpence at the feet of their target, and have to be. Arshavin has no time to wait with the finish, and yet it’s measured, placed to perfection in the far corner.
I’m honestly not picking on the Dutch here, I’m just fed up of biased TV coverage telling us certain teams/players are geniuses whilst merely paying lip-service to others when I can’t see any difference between what they’ve done.
The Russian wonder goal came five minutes into the second half, and they somehow contrived to miss everything else that came their way after that, hitting the woodwork, shooting when they should have passed, passing when they should have shot, and finishing lazily. At no stage did Russia sit back and settle for what they had, even at 2-0; every opportunity to attack that came their way was snapped up. Let that be a lesson to their beaten opponents and a few others.
The Swedes had clearly been sent out with a first priority of protecting the draw that would have seen them qualify, and once that had gone out of the window fairly early, there appeared to be no plan B. They looked distinctly ordinary all over the park, and none more so than Ibrahimovic, who recently became the highest-paid footballer in the world after signing a new contract with Internazionale worth over £9 million pounds a year.
Let me repeat that, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is paid over £9 million pounds a year, more than any other footballer in the world. Does anyone else think this guy is a carthorse? All he seems to do for Inter is convert penalties, and he hadn’t scored for Sweden in over two years before this tournament. Last night he looked slow, predictable and a very comfortable nights work for average defenders, which is all he was up against. Henrik Larsson, ten years his senior, offered far more threat if only because he displayed a little guile and invention, something which seems to me to be beyond the capabilities of Ibrahimovic.
For Russia, they move on to the knockout stages of a tournament for the first time since the USSR were beaten in the final of Euro 88 by Holland, and Marco Van Basten’s famous goal. Their quarter final opponents, of course, are Holland and Marco Van Basten. Holland’s best performance since then was reaching the world cup semi-final in ’98 and losing on penalties to Brazil, under the management of Guus Hiddink. Another ten years on, and all these factors have strangely come around again to give us the mouthwatering prospect of Holland v Hiddink.
Sadly for Euro 2008, we shall now see no more of Greece and their unique brand of beautifully choreographed slapstick. They leave Euro 2008 as the only side not to win a single point, but not as the only side without a goal, after they left us quite fittingly with a reminder of how it was all done four years ago. A set piece, swung dangerously into the penalty area, and Charisteas rises to plant a header beyond the helpless keeper. Ah, the memories!
However it didn’t last, as even Spain’s reserves seemed miffed with the idea of dropping points to the Greeks, and came back in the second half with two goals to turn it around, the first an absolute corker from the appropriately named Ruben De La Red. Greece at least bowed out without too much hilarity this time, for once their veteran goalkeeper and Euro 2008’s clown-in-chief Antonis Nikopolidis appeared blameless.
Greece’s spectacular transition from heroes to zeroes reflect the changing attitudes shown towards the championships this time compared to four years ago. In amongst a group of teams infected with negativity as in 2004, the field was levelled out for Greece and they filled their boots. This time around, where the etiquette has been for ambition, adventure, and risk-taking, they have been left out in the cold. Maybe that’s good news for football, but the Greeks’ incredible triumph will live long in the memoy as a thrilling event, because it was so unexpected. Also, they may have done international tournaments a great service for the future in giving all negative minded coaches of talent-rich teams a wake-up call.
Spain, as all the other three group winners had, sent out an entirely reserve side. Their rather tame efforts had more in common with Portugal’s final game than with Croatia and Holland’s momentum maintenance. It will almost certainly have no significance whatsoever, though it will be an interesting match-up with Italy, who will come into the quarter-final with the match mentality firmly switched on.
So, it’s goodbye to the group stages, and hello penalty-shoot outs. Suddenly, I fancy the Germans again.