Tag Archives: Quarter-Finals

Old Habits Die Hard

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Hmm, Lord Mayor’s show and all that. The last quarter-final of Euro 2008 put in a rather fierce challenge for the dubious accolade of being the tournament’s low point, and whilst the significance of the match probably kept its status as a spectacle slightly above that of France v Romania, that is the only hint of polish anyone could possibly offer this turd.

Spain and Italy played out an insomnia-curing 120 minutes that looked destined for penalties from a very early stage. As is the usual form when two sides of such magnitude play out a direfest, the commentators will try and convince us that the game is ‘tactical’, ‘technical’, or that the teams are ‘cancelling each other out’. Strangely, ‘shite’ never seems to be a term they’re keen to apply no matter how bad things get, and this was very, very bad. That, by the way, is all it was. The poor quality of the match was not down in any way to the two teams tactics, it was down to the fact that they were rubbish. They couldn’t pass it, they couldn’t cross it, they barely moved, and they couldn’t shoot.

The latter criticism applies in particular to the Spaniards, whose entire game plan appeared to consist of making their way at a snails pace to an area 25 yards from the Italian goal, before unleashing the most harmless of efforts on goal that generally failed by numerous yards to find the target. All this would have seemed speculative under normal circumstances, but considering the world’s finest goalkeeper was between the sticks, it just appeared lazy and careless. The Italians however, weren’t even this good, as any or all of the above would have been an improvement on the virtual zero they offered in threat to Iker Casillas at the other end.

The first half was probably honours even for both incompetence and negativity, both sides barely breaking into a jog, playing safety-first possession football which offered no threat whatsoever of penetrating either defence. Moves came to an end with either a tame and inaccurate shot , as described above, or with an equally hopeless cross or final pass.

After half-time, a divide did occur between the two sides; both were still awful, but Spain were at least poor in a good cause, at least making the effort to come forward, where as Italy just seemed to pack it in altogether. The game sank to unpalatable depths, one side not interested in playing, the other not good enough to punish them for it. I’m not sure whose reputation comes off worse in this situation, the Italians for making no attempt to look any good, or the Spaniards failing to do so despite trying quite hard.

For the Italians it was a return to the bad old days. In the last few years, and especially in the World Cup two years ago, their play had begun to make the common criticism of them being overly defensive sound like a tired old cliche. From the second half onwards however, it looked relevant again, as Luca Toni became totally isolated up front, and virtually had to come back to his own half of the field to have any chance of seeing the ball. Extra-time also came and went without any Italian advance that registered in the memory. Whether the side lacked the courage to try and dominate the midfield without the suspended Pirlo and Gattuso I’m not sure, but this is hardly an adequate excuse for such negativity.

Spain looked better after rejigging their midfield on the hour mark, taking off the ineffectual Barcelona pair Xavi and Iniesta, and bringing on Cesc Fabregas. A no-brainer to everyone else, it’s logic which still escapes the Spaniards’ nasty old fool of a manager, Luis Aragones. The performance of the two first choices must be especially worrying for Spain when considering that their opponents were much weakened in the same area. Fabregas improved the quality of Spain’s passing immediately, and added to it some much needed urgency, though it was still not good enough to break down the dour Italians and create any clearcut chances for David Villa and Fernando Torres.

Extra-time plodded on towards its inevitable conclusion with neither side prepared to show even a smidgen of the courage that Russia had in dominating their extra half-hour the night before. This is perhaps especially surprising when one considers the horrors that both sides have suffered in shoot-outs of the past. This extra period was a far cry from the one Italy played in the World Cup semi-final against the Germans two years ago, when they ended with four strikers on the pitch, so desperate were they to avoid the spot-kicks. On that occasion their positive attitude paid off and led to them winning the World Cup, but on sunday they appeared to have learned nothing from that experience.

The neutral observer was surely favouring Spain in the shoot-out, which convinced me that Italy would probably win it, as the team that deserves to win the match often seems to lose if it goes to penalties, as happened on friday with the Croatians. Spain’s nerves were allowed to settle early in the shoot-out however, as they took a successful first kick and the Italians followed it with a failure. Spain could even afford to miss their fourth penalty and come through, and fittingly it was Fabregas, the only player who really showed any quality on the night, that converted the decisive penalty.

Overall the quarter-finals produced quite a stark contrast, the big winners being the spectators in Basle, and ITV, whose two matches were both thrillers. The two matches in Vienna on the other hand, both covered on the BBC, were complete stinkers saved only by two minutes of drama at the end of Croatia and Turkey’s extra-time, and two penalty shoot-outs. By this standard, the first semi-final in Basle tonight between Germany and Turkey should be the one to see, whilst tomorrow’s match in Vienna between Spain and Russia will be the non-event, though the received wisdom would surely say that the opposite is the more likely outcome.

I am saying nothing, trying to predict what will happen in this tournament is clearly for fools, though you if you are prepared to dabble in groundless guesswork, you should have no problem in securing employment with one of our fine broadcasting networks. A Turkish side ravaged by injuries and suspensions against a now mighty-looking German team that go in as hot favourites. Only one result right? The only thing I’m certain of is that if the Germans are one goal ahead with a minute left, I don’t think too many in the crowd will be nipping off to miss the traffic.

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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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Who’s Got The Ballacks?

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One always hopes that the knockout stages will move a tournament up a notch in the excitement stakes, but often it doesn’t work like that. The nerves tend to get worse as the stakes get higher, and that’s why we generally end up with so many penalty shoot-outs. Given that the group stages have produced such fantastic action here, it seemed less likely than usual that the latter rounds would upstage them. This, however, is Euro 2008, the finest football tournament in living memory, home of the brave and ambitious, and it seems that we’ve only just started.

Germany and Portugal were the first to do battle in the quarter-finals, and they produced a classic, once again packed with over-committed attacking football, disorganised defences, and goals, goals, goals. The Germans, embarrassed by Croatia, and nervous against Austria, returned to form with a bang, surging at the Portuguese, and exposing major flaws in their defence, which had gone relatively untested in the group.

Before long they were two up, the returning villain Schweinsteiger, sent off for idiocy against Croatia, turned hero, flying in at the near post to complete a sensational German move for the first after Ballack had released our old friend Podolski on the left. Shortly afterwards he added an assist to his tally, resisting the temptation to shoot from a thirty-five yard free-kick in favour of floating a much more dangerous ball into the mix, where Klose found the freedom of Basel thanks to non-existent Portuguese marking, and glanced in the second.

The Germans succeeded with tactics that have become the theme of the tournament, using the full width of the pitch, feeding the wingers, and getting behind the opposition defence before putting crosses in, and getting men in to the box to challenge for them. Then, once the lead was established, they used regular counter-attacks to ensure that their opponents could never feel comfortable in piling everyone forward when going in search of a comeback. They passed the ball in a fashion which was direct, but stopped short of being aerial and aimless. I would like to reiterate, these are nothing more than traditional English, or perhaps British, tactics; the tactics we’ve been told for years that we had to get rid of if we ever wanted to succeed in Europe; the tactics we’re told are from the stone age. The tactics used by Liverpool, Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa that brought six successive European Cups to England between 1977 and 1982.

The Portuguese spent the greater part of the first half doing their usual huffing and puffing and getting absolutely nowhere, but with style. Deco had his finest match of the tournament, but his efforts were so sadly wasted in a side that so desperately, desperately needs a striker. In how many more tournaments are we going to have to point this out? Please Portugal, please, please, please find a striker! There must be someone somewhere with a Portuguese granny that can improve on Nuno Gomes or Pauleta. Failing that, at least play a second idiot up front instead of one on his own.

Nuno Gomes did actually score to bring Portugal back into it before half-time, and significantly this happened when Ronaldo made a direct run through the centre, making of himself a second striker. You have to wonder why on earth Portugal didn’t just make it a permanent move, after all it’s not as though Ronaldo can’t finish, and he would have added physical presence and height, aspects of his game that are mostly wasted when he’s stuck out on the wing. You would think in this tournament of wingers that Ronaldo would be in his element, and yet he has had a quiet tournament, adding further credence to the view that he doesn’t produce when the pressure is on. He certainly grew more and more ineffectual as the game wore on and Portugal became more in need of him.

You certainly could not say the same about Michael Ballack, who was an absolute giant in the middle of the park, organising, ball-winning, passing, driving forward, and in the second half scoring the goal that proved to be the winner, rising to meet another Schweinsteiger free-kick, and again exposing a soft-centre in the Portuguese defence which was this time exacerbated by a hopeless wander and flap by goalkeeper Ricardo.

Replays showed a push by Ballack on Paulo Ferreira as he leapt to head the ball home, which Scolari saw on the big screen and showed his displeasure about, but really, this kind of thing is surely fair game in the box. Just because a replay happened to catch this one, it doesn’t change the fact that there are dozens more in every single game that go unnoticed. If free-kicks and penalties were given for this kind of thing, there would really be no point in taking any set-pieces at all.

Moreover, the ‘foul’ by Ballack was nothing compared to the assault by Pepe on Klose that led to the award of the free-kick from which Germany profited. Pepe launched himself into the striker with force, leading with his shoulder and making thumping contact with Klose’s face. The German was lucky to escape uninjured, and Pepe should have been punished with a straight red card. The fact that the defender stayed on the field meant that there was more than a hint of justice about the resulting goal.

Portugal ‘responded’ by throwing on Nani and Helder Postiga, which must have relaxed the Germans no end, and yet incredibly it was these two that combined to make them sweat for the last five minutes, the latter heading in the former’s cross as the Germans dozed off at the back. That was as good as it got for Portugal though, and the final whistle brought down the curtain on Scolari’s reign. One can only wonder what a legacy he may have left if he could have uncovered that elusive striker; Euro 2004? Almost certainly. 2006 World Cup? Maybe. As it is, his team will be remembered as nearly men, something that definitely won’t be acceptable in his next job.

The Germans had been doubted by many after a couple of mediocre group games, but you can be sure there will be few doubters left now. Certainly not amongst the bookies, who have now reinstalled them as tournament favourites. Down to serious business, several German players stood up and showed their class: Lukas Podolski, who pulled defenders all over the place with his movement, provided a constant threat, and was inches away from one of the all-time great goals as a 35-yard exorcet flew past the post; Philipp Lahm, who coped comfortably with, in effect, two right wingers in Simao and the non-defending full-back Bosingwa, and still found time to join the attack; and Schweinsteiger, who returned from the disgrace of his red card against Croatia to deliver a match-winning contribution of a goal and two assists.

Standing head and shoulders above everyone though was Ballack, a true leader with the presence to dominate the biggest of matches, and as the stakes get higher, the stronger he becomes. This is a man who led Germany to a World Cup final almost single handed when still only 25, and may have gone on to lift the trophy but for being suspended for the final. He was denied again two years ago on home soil in the semi-finals, and has been on the losing side in two Champions League finals. If he were to be the man to lift the trophy at Euro 2008, there could surely be no more deserving winner.

One enormous relief felt by all at Portugal’s demise is surely that we will no longer have to listen to the world’s worst football commentator, Clive Tyldesley, turn ITV into MUTV. Ronaldo’s lame display continually made a fool of Tyldesley, who gave him the big build up every time he received the ball around the box with a hearty “…and here’s CristiANO RONALDO…”, only for the next line to fall flat on its arse as Ronaldo’s contribution limped into obscurity. A suggestion for you ITV – Tyldesley won’t be interested in the rest of this now that Ronaldo’s out, I mean surely he can’t base an entire commentary around Edwin Van Der Sar? Do yourselves, and especially us, a favour by packing this horrendously biased idiot off early to prepare his Champions League preview, and please give the remainder of your fixtures to Jon Champion.

In fact, I will make you a unique offer – I promise to watch at least one of the dual broadcasted semi-finals on ITV if Champion is in the chair. I don’t promise to watch your analysis, but the second the BBC pass to John Motson, I’ll be over.

I await your reply with anticipation.

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