Make Way For The Dutch Grand Master

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Euro 2008 just doesn’t know when to stop does it? It continues to raise the bar of excitement still higher; just when you think you’ve seen everything this amazing tournament just keeps delivering more. Surely though, surely we saw the tournament reach its peak on saturday with as thrilling a game of football as has been seen in this or any other championship? Surely this one can’t be beaten?? Seriously, if we really are destined to see a more dramatic match than the one between Russia and Holland, I cannot understand why the world is not as one clearing its diaries for the remaining four instalments of this incredible competition.

Now, having been heavily critical of Holland whilst everyone else has been unable to do anything but dollop great spoonfuls of golden-syrupy sweeteness all over them, it would be easy for me to be smug at what was a quite comprehensive and embarrassing defeat. All I can promise is that I will try my level best to be objective, but I can’t help but think that every single Dutch bandwagon-jumper must have a sickly taste in their mouth after this.

In truth, the kind of defeat I had predicted for Holland, one that involved sulking, cheating and general nastiness, never happened. The Dutch took their defeat fairly gracefully, and quite rightly so as they were thoroughly outplayed in every department of the game by a better team. More painful still, they were completely outfoxed tactically by the competition’s finest Dutchman, Guus Hiddink. Why the Dutch F.A haven’t spent the last 10 years begging this man to come home and bring the success to the national team that his genius would surely guarantee, only they can know.

The BBC punditry team, when giving their predictions on Football Focus, went 7-0 in favour of Holland. Only simpleton Mark Lawrenson hadn’t been asked for his view previously and, having watched the film of all his colleagues going for Holland, decided to go for Russia just to be different. It’s about time Lawro got something right, even if it was by accident, so I’ll grant him his moment of glory.

The beeb’s predictions, like everyone elses, were totally blind to the football that had been played previously, where Holland had had more than their fair share of luck against Italy, then beat a dreadful French side largely thanks to the impact play of Arjen Robben in the second half. Russia had given by far the best complete footballing display of either side in the group stages when dismantling Sweden in their final match, so their danger should have been more widely acknowledged.

Over on ITV, where the match was actually covered, things were no better. The build-up to the game was almost entirely Oranje-related, and the boys couldn’t say enough about how much they were looking forward to another exhibition of attacking beauty. The boys got their wish, but the beauty came exclusively from the team in white, who so consummately disassembled the Dutchmen that on the night Holland could be thankful the score against them didn’t comprise two figures, and were unbelievably fortunate in taking the game to extra-time.

Some of the commentary heard from Peter Drury as the game evolved and it became abundantly clear that ITV weren’t going to get the opportunity to worship the Dutch display as they clearly desired, but worse still assumed all the viewers did too, was quite disgustingly patronising. During extra-time he openly admitted to loving the Dutch, but discussed with summariser Jim Beglin that he was being swayed by the Russians such was the quality of their football. Translation: “Christ Beglin, we’ve backed the wrong one here bigtime, how can we get out of this without looking thoroughly stupid?”. My advice Peter, would be to turn up just to commentate on what actually takes place and not let your hype-induced favour for one of the two teams allow you to make such misjudged predictions.

The Russian display was exhilharating. Whilst the Dutch did their usual and sat waiting for the opposition to make the first move, Russia snapped up the initiative and pinned Holland back from the off. For the first time a Dutch defence that always looked weak on paper received a real test, and they crumbled. The Russians walked through the Dutch back line time after time with high-speed precision passing and movement that was made to look simple and effortless. Holland were forced to play so deep that they were completely unable to respond with any periods of pressure, their only threat coming from set pieces where the Russian defence showed its own fallibility.

The one thing that does elude this Russian team though is clinical finishing and, just as they had against Sweden, they wasted so many opportunities that it undermined their dominance and allowed their opponents to stay in the game. It took Russia until the 56th minute to take the lead, when Roman Pavlyuchenko turned in Sergei Semak’s cross. Pavlyuchenko seems to be your classic frustrating striker; very reliable in terms of getting on the end of chances, but the exact opposite when it comes to actually putting them away. He certainly infuriates Hiddink, who insisted that his man-of-the-match award against Greece had been unmerited due to being so wasteful infront of goal.

Russia seem to make so many chances however, that Pavlyuchenko seems to be able to miss plenty and still end up on the scoresheet in most games. It was not just the striker who was guilty on saturday however, and Russia’s failure to make the scoreline reflect the beating they had given the Dutch threatened to cost them dear.

Many inexperienced teams would have tried to put up the shutters on going one up in such a huge game, but this Russian team doesn’t appear to know the meaning of negativity. Or maybe they’re just aware that their defending isn’t quite in the same league as their attacking play and so sensibly try and keep the ball as far away from the danger end for as long as possible, a lesson a few other teams would do well to learn. However, as the semi-final prize edged nearer, some panic inevitably set in and in the last 15 minutes Russia began to clear their lines with more desperation, and for the first time in the match conceded some ground and possession to the Dutch. It’s worth pointing out that the Russians still looked the more likely to score when breaking, and that the only way Holland looked like scoring was still from a set piece.

Any neutrals watching, which clearly didn’t include our broadcasters, can only have been willing the Russians to either hang on or grab another to seal it, such would have been the injustice of a Dutch equaliser. I hardly need to tell you what happened next do I? Yep, Holland equalised from a set piece. Three minutes from time, free kick on the left, Sneijder curled in a beauty, and the statuesque defenders watched Van Nistelrooy score from his average distance of about two yards. Neutral hearts sank.

Failing to see it through having come so close must have hurt a young, inexperienced team like Russia, which only makes what happened in extra-time even more astonishing. With everyone waiting for Holland to grow in confidence after their escape, and finish off a mentally shattered side, Russia took up where they had left off, and then some. Extra-time can often be cagey, as both teams become nervous about conceding with so little time to respond, but on this occasion it was complete one-way traffic, as the Russians proved themselves to be not only technically and physically superior, but also resilient and courageous. Russia, with no fear whatsoever, attacked Holland throughout extra-time, missed yet more chances, but finally, finally sealed the semi-final place they deserved with two more goals in the second period.

Russia’s on-field driving force throughout had once again been Andrei Arshavin, who gave the sponsors their easiest man-of-the-match decision of the tournament with a virtuoso display that was comfortably the finest individual performance seen at these championships. In two matches he has changed this Russian team from potential also-rans into potential champions, not only with his own play, but with the additional confidence his presence appears to inject into his team-mates. He’s probably also added about £10 million to his transfer value, something we are almost certain to discover when Russia’s adventure comes to an end.

It’s difficult to know whether Arshavin is a midfield playmaker, winger, or striker, as at present he seems to be doing all three. If his future managers have any sense they will take their lead from Mr Hiddink and let him do whatever he wants. The free role he enjoyed allowed him to provide the crucial second Russian goal from the left hand side, and score the third from the right. The cross he provided for the second was quite unbelievable, lifting it over defender and goalkeeper from an impossibly tight position to drop just inside the far post requiring only a tap in, which it received from substitute Dmitri Torbinski.

Of course many managers could do a lot worse than take a few lessons from Guus Hiddink, who has now added to an already staggering record with another unlikely success. Hiddink said afterwards that to outplay a team like Holland tactically, technically and physically was testament to the quality of his players. That was modesty talking of course; the victory was an enormous tribute to Hiddink’s own, currently unmatched, skills as a coach. Before he took over Russia were a bunch of water-treading underachievers who wouldn’t have qualified, two years on they sit two matches away from becoming European Champions, with very few brave enough to write off their chances.

Hiddink does have one new obstacle to overcome however, and that is the semi-final. He has been thwarted at this stage with his native country and with South Korea in the World Cups of 1998 and 2002 respectively. Surely no one would now put it past him to make it third time lucky, and cement his place amongst the managerial legends.

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Filed under BBC, Football, ITV, Sport, TV, UEFA Euro 2008

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