Category Archives: Group D

The ‘Kids’ Are Alright

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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.

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You Asked For It (Part 1)

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Writing about matches after subsequent matches have taken place sometimes offers a different perspective, for instance it opens up the opportunity to see teams make the same stupid errors, and you just want to ask them “Weren’t you watching yesterday?, Didn’t they do exactly the same thing?, And didn’t they look stupid?, And don’t you now look even more stupid?”.

More of that in the next post however, first to take care of Saturday. Group D is not exactly getting into the spirit of things at Euro 2008, it’s a bit too well organised and not especially adventurous. It’s not dull or completely bereft of interest by any means, but it needs a bit of chaos to get it going.

Spain and Sweden played out a largely uneventful encounter, which looked all on for an appropriate draw until a little late genius from David Villa settled it in Spain’s favour. The match did reveal the vulnerability of the Spaniards, who looked pretty clueless when it came to making chances, and appear to be relying on their two superstars up front to both make and take their own opportunities. They got away with it in this match by the skin of their teeth, but you wonder how many more times they will.

Sweden however, were the side guilty of brainlessness in this match, and got their just desserts for settling for a point with a level of negativity that was quite unnecessary. After the two sides had traded scrappy goals in the first half, the Swedes largely dominated, and looked more than capable of causing an upset. As the second half dozed along however, the Swedes drifted back, and back, and back… and then came the substitution of the forwards, which left them with no outlet and therefore made ball retention much more difficult for themselves. Consequently the Spaniards ended up with more possession at the end of the match, and despite not exactly using it to apply unbearable pressure, the fact is that if you’ve got the ball then you’ve got a chance, and if a chance falls to either of Spain’s strikers, there’s only one place it’s finishing up.

Just why do teams do this? I’ve seen this kind of petrified mass retreat so often before, and it just never works. If Sweden wanted to protect a point, the logical thing to do is surely attempt to keep the ball as far away from your goal and the opposition players as possible. You certainly don’t achieve it by altering the shape of your team into something unrecognisable to the players, forcing them to play entirely in one half (the wrong half) of the pitch, and sending the opposition a postcard to let them know you no longer have any intention, or possibility, of scoring another goal in this game.

Spain can consider themselves lucky, because against a more courageous side they would have been beaten. We should not be surprised of course, except perhaps for the fact that Spain’s inevtiable collapse has started a little earlier than usual. Generally they complete a full group programme impressively before imploding. Alright, they haven’t exactly fallen apart yet but the cracks have definitely started to appear in the form of a fragile looking rearguard, and a void of creativity in midfield. Why the Spanish coach Luis Aragones, a racist old fool, chooses to start with the ineffective Xavi and not Cesc Fabregas is beyond me and presumably anyone who’s watched a Premier League match in the last two years.

It’s just irresistable for a commentator to resist a cliche. I might have said it was like a moth to a flame, but that would just make me look silly, so I won’t. I am overall very happy with the return of Jon Champion to the ITV microphone, he has far more acute sense of perspective than his idiot colleagues Tyldesley and Drury, far less likely to use inappropriate hyperbole, or, as in the case of Tyldesley, grovel at the feet of any ‘big 4’ Premier League player. Alas he still appears to be third choice behind them for some reason, but at least they are making use of him. Even Champion can’t resist the cliche though, and it was a slight disappointment that he couldn’t get through Greece v Russia without reducing himself to the cringeworthy “It’s a Greek Tragedy”, and “No need for Russia to beware Greeks bearing gifts”.

I must admit at this point that I did myself make some allusion to the whole Greek tragedy thing after their first game, but I like to think that I at least made some attempt to steer it clear of the obvious and repetitive. I must admt also that my chosen avatars to represent the various nations on this blog may have a hint of cliche about them. The difference is that I am under no obligation to maintain any standards, I shall be as crass and predictable as I like if I think it’s funny. Champion really needs to try harder.

As you might have already guessed from those choice cuts of questionable commentator’s language, Greece continued on their merry quest to make the worst defence of a trophy ever seen. Greece appear to be the poorest side in Euro 2008 by such a distance you have to wonder if they shouldn’t have been made to play in every group in the interest of fairness; it seems wrong that only three teams in the competition get the opportunity for a gift three points.

Not that I’m not pleased that Greece are taking part, that’s why I advocate them having more matches as opposed to none at all. They are after all the best comedy value in the tournament, and they continued in saturday’s match where they had left off against Sweden. Their attitude to the match wasn’t quite as comically negative as it had been against the Swedes, this time it was just ordinary dullness, which was disappointing. Their goalkeeper Nikopolidis more than made up for it however, with a second hilarious howler of the tournament, taking an inexplicable stroll towards the left hand edge of his box in the direction of an overhit cross, blissfully ignorant to the fact that a Russian was several yards better off in the race. The hapless custodian looked on as the ball was lobbed gently back over his head into the centre, where Zyryanov was waiting to tap in to the vacated net.

Greece ensured that a sense of balance was applied to the occasion by proving themselves equally capable of slapstick at the other end as well, as Charisteas put forward a leading contender for miss of the tournament, failing to convert a header when unmarked from 3 yards. The striker showed his prowess with the boots was on a par with his heading too, when turning down the opportunity to fire an easy chance past the Russian keeper, instead choosing to give the watching defenders a textbook demonstration of the safe back-pass.

The fact that Russia actually seemed a little tentative about making an attempt to increase their lead probably tells you the extent of their ambition in this tournament. They now face a winner-takes-all clash against the Swedes, but having scored only one goal against the Greeks and been leaky against Spain, have handed the draw to Sweden.

Greece of course are out, and their presence will be greatly missed in Euro 2008, if not for reasons they would appreciate. They will now play a dead-rubber against Spain; their swansong as European Champions. If what we’ve seen from them so far is just the first act then I, for one, cannot wait for the finale.

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Encore! Encore!

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Whilst it’s a well known fact that the Ancient Greeks were the first masters of tragedy and comedy, it’s a debate in literary circles whether they can truly be credited with getting to grips with the idea of the hybrid genre of tragicomedy. The argument may step up a gear tonight, after Greece’s modern footballers suggested that the tradition was flowing through the blood.

The defending champs delivered an opening performance that was so dreadful that it went beyond bad, came all the way around again to good, then soared to hilarious. The Greek display had the appearance of being choreographed, so perfect was its execution of comic timing during passages of despairingly poor play.

Sweden looked on dumbfounded, as the Greeks gained possession in their own half, and preceded to pass it amongst themselves aimlessly in the fashion of West Germany and Austria in the 1982 World Cup, when the two sides fixed the result in order to both qualify for the next phase. The Swedish crowd whistled with fury as time after time, the Greeks just walked around with the ball showing no interest whatsoever in participating in a football match.

Maybe Greece have grown so fond of their tag of champion spoilers that, aware they have no chance of producing a repeat, they’ve come here to parody the concept. Perhaps their three games at Euro 2008 will soon be arriving on a stage, entitled Greece Are Dull: The Musical. In its way it was enormously entertaining, and the way in which Greece seemed to deliberately play as awfully as possible definitely contained a certain artistry, comparable, say, with Les Dawson’s piano playing, or Tommy Cooper’s magician’s act.

Greece’s apparent preference for the performing arts didn’t end there either, their number also included a classic hero-villain in centre back Sotiris Kyrgiakos, who first tried to combine with a team mate to make a human vice in which to crush Freddie Ljungberg, then spent the rest of the match attempting to render redundant as many of Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s body parts that he could gain access to.

Before the curtain came down, it was time for the final act; a stunningly executed piece of slapstick involving a high ball, a floundering custodian facing his own goal, and four pairs of legs succeeding more in kicking each other than the ball. Eventually the ball appeared to find its own way into the corner of the net, and the show was over to a thoroughly merited standing ovation. Alright, maybe the standing ovation was from the magnificent Swedish fans for their players, but in my head they were all cheering our Greek entertainers.

ITV’s Steve Rider proved to have his finger as far from a football fan’s pulse as possible by declaring “At least the first goal made it worth watching”. The first Swedish goal, a decent strike from Ibrahimovic, scored whilst the defenders were presumably busy with a costume change, represented the intermission drink or ice cream, a pleasant enough diversion, but soon forgotten again in a long evening of cultural indulgence.

 

Before the Greeks took the stage, Spain had earlier made yet another good start to a tournament, setting up perfectly their usual scenario of false dawns and miserable failure. If the inevitable crash to earth is as spectacular as the lift-off though, it should be worth watching, as Spain gave pretty much a complete performance, ruthlessly exposing Russian defensive hesitancy with forwards oozing pace and class, then giving a masterclass in how to complete a victory by snuffing out any thoughts of Russian resistance in the second half with perfect possession retention.

It will all end in tears though, as we know, and it was pleasantly surprising to see the BBC pundits not falling into the trap of bestowing upon Spain the status of genuine contenders. A studio full of once bitten pundits stonewalled the issue beautifully, heaping praise on Spain’s display, but remaining transparently non-committal on the issue of their further progress. Sensible boys.

Spain’s day for sorrow is to come later though, tonight the tears belong to Greece. Whether they are tears induced by sadness or laughter depends on your position, but one thing is certain: The show must go on.

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