Russia, Spain battle for Euro 2008 final spot
Spain hammered Russia 4-1 in the group stage of Euro 2008 but it should be a very different game when they meet again in today's semifinal after the latter's fortunes were transformed by the return of Andrei Arshavin.
Spain won the first clash on June 10 thanks to enterprising attacking, loose Russian defending and a hat-trick by David Villa but it is the losers who now have momentum on their side.
With each match, Spain's buildup has become slower and their attacks less dangerous. They barely threatened in their goalless quarter-final with Italy which they won on penalties.
However, Russia have gone the other way by tightening up at the back and surfing a wave of attacking improvement that culminated in their fully-deserved and highly entertaining 3-1 victory over Netherlands in their quarter-final.
Suddenly, Innsbruck seems a long time ago. “If we think Russia will be the same as the opening match we will be very mistaken,” warned Spain midfielder Cesc Fabregas. Russia's progress has much to do with the efforts of playmaker Arshavin, who was suspended for the first two games, and striker Roman Pavlyuchenko, who has rediscovered the form that played such a key part in his country making the finals.
Arshavin was outstanding in the 2-0 group win over Sweden and again versus the Dutch, where his direct running, great ball control and visionary passing tore holes in both defenses. Three-goal Pavlyuchenko has regained his appetite for the fray and the lightweight Spanish centre backs will have to be on top of their game to keep a hold on him. Free-running and sharp-passing midfielders Konstantin Zyryanov and Igor Semshov, together with virtual wing-backs Alexander Anyukov and Yuri Zhirkov, add more threat.
“The way we play, with technical skill and flair, it's always joyful to see that,” said Russia's inspirational Dutch coach Guus Hiddink.
Hiddink's main worry is the absence of suspended center-back Denis Kolodin, who helped reorganize the defense into a unit that has conceded only one further goal after the Spain defeat.
Vasily Berezutsky is likely to replace him and together with Sergei Ignashevich must keep constant shackles on Villa and Fernando Torres to keep Spain at arm's length. After their enterprising display in the opener Spain have slowed their midfield play to the point where Italy happily sat with eight men behind the ball patiently watching the short passing that was neat but desperately lacking in penetration. Only when Fabregas comes on, usually after an hour, does there seem to be any zest and their coach Luis Aragones knows they have to find new ways to threaten if they are to progress.“It will be difficult to surprise Hiddink, but we will try,” he said.