Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Euro 2008 Quarter-Finals round-up

Portugal 2 - 3 Germany
In the first of the quarter finals, Group A winners Portugal took on Group B runners-up Germany. Both teams had stumbled in their groups: Portugal had fielded a reserve side and lost 2-0 to hosts Switzerland, while a full-strength German side had tepidly lost 2-1 to Croatia.

It was the Germans who were quickest from the blocks here, as a fast flowing move down the left-wing led to Bastian Schweinsteiger (above) sliding home the opening goal after 22 minutes. Just four minutes later the game looked all over, as poor Portuguese marking allowed Miroslav Klose a free header in the box, which he duly glanced into the net.

Portugal came back into contention just before half-time, when a Ronaldo shot was parried by Jens Lehmann, only for Nuno Gomes to slot home the rebound. In the second-half, Portugal's sloppy defending came back to haunt them again as German captain Michael Ballack found space in the area to head home a third goal.

Late pressure from the Portuguese was too little too late: Helder Postiga scored from a great Nani cross with three minutes to go, but there wasn't enough time to grab an equaliser. So the Portuguese fans have gone home; Big Phil Scolari has flown to Chelsea; Ronaldo has flown to Madrid; and Germany suddenly look a good bet again to win the trophy.

Croatia 1 - 1 Turkey (Turkey wins 3-1 on penalties)
Friday night's second quarter-final between Croatia and Turkey was, for so long, proving to be one of the worst games of the tournament. Croatia had qualified thanks to three wins out of three in Group B, including a victory over pre-tournament favourites Germany, and looked strong favourites to make the semi's. Turkey, on the other hand, had been leading in matches for a combined total of 2 minutes, after shock injury-time winners against both Switzerland and the Czech Republic.

This game never got going: Croatia attacked, Turkey defended doggedly, and neither side was able to create much. Turkey looked like they were playing for penalties the whole game, and it seemed that their negativity had finally caught up with them when Ivan Klasnic scored a header for Croatia in the 119th minute - one minute from the end of injury-time. Incredibly, Turkey's first shot on target the whole night didn't arrive until the 122nd minute, but when it arrived it was spectacular and unspeakably dramatic.

The 120 minutes of normal time plus extra time were up, and even the one-minute of suggested injury-time was up, when Turkish keeper Rustu Recber launched one last high ball into the Croatian penalty area. Time stood still, and so did the Croatian defenders as Semi Senturk lashed the ball into the top corner of the net.

Penalty shoot-outs are 90% psychological, and it was clear to everyone who would win this one: the Croatians were crushed, the Turks ecstatic. Modric and Rakitic missed for Croatia, Petric had his penalty saved by Rustu, and Turkey won 3-1. Turkey is in the semi-finals, and they've still only led matches for a combined total of 2 minutes of the 390 they've played in this tournament.

Netherlands 1 - 3 Russia (aet)
Saturday night saw new tournament favourites the Netherlands take on Dutchman Guus Hiddink's improving Russia team. While the Dutch had sensationally dispensed with Italy and France and rested their key players for a comfortable win over Romania, Russia had been annihilated 4-1 by Spain before easing past Greece 1-0 and putting on an exciting display of fast-moving attacking football in a 2-0 win over Sweden.

Surely their dodgy defence, so embarrassingly shown up by the Spanish, wouldn't be able to cope with the threat of van Nistelrooy, van Persie and Sneijder? In fact, they coped easily. Russia deservedly took a first-half lead through Pavyluchenko, and passed up several good opportunities to seal the points. They were outplaying the Dutch in midfield, with only Wesley Sneijder being able to cause problems for that dodgy Russian defence.

Just before full-time, a brilliant Sneijder free-kick was headed home by Ruud van Nistelrooy, taking the game to extra-time. But the added period saw a revived Russian side, who zipped around the park as if boosted by rocket fuel, inspired by a masterclass display by Andrei Arshavin (above). His ridiculous by-line cross allowed Dmitri Torbinski to slide home a second goal, before Arshavin himself nutmegged Dutch goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar for a third goal with four minutes left.

The Russians deserved their win, and suddenly the biggest clubs in Europe were all searching their pockets for £20m or so to buy 27-year old Arshavin, the new star of the tournament.

Spain 0 - 0 Italy (Spain wins 4-2 on penalties)

By Sunday night, it was left up to Spain to show that group winners could progress in the knock-outs. Croatia and Holland, the other 9-point winners in the group stages, had been evicted by group runners-up, while Group A winners Portugal had been dumped by Germany.

The big match build-up divided neutral fans between romantic and cynical lines: Spain had been enjoying by far the better tournament, the romantics said, and Italy were without their two first-pick central midfielders, Pirlo and Gattuso, due to suspension; it doesn't matter, said the skeptics, this is the way it always goes: Spain will play the best football, miss a load of chances, and be knocked out by a lucky Italian side.

This is "the way", they said, it is fate, and for a long time it looked like this pattern was indeed being followed: Spain attacked and missed; the Italians defended in bulk, and neutral fans around the world collectively groaned as Spain looked set to bottle it again. They didn't.

As the game headed into extra-time, the psychological game that so often determines the victor of high-tension matches like these strongly suggested the Italians would win: everything was going according to their plan, and so typically frustrating the Spanish. Remarkably, the better footballing side was able to triumph over the resilient and experienced Italians. Iker Casillas saved penalties from Daniele De Rossi and Antonio Di Natale, and Gigi Buffon saved one of his own, from Dani Guiza, but it wasn't enough. Arsenal's Cesc Fabregas converted the final spot-kick to give Spain a 4-2 victory, and the final place in the Euro semi-finals.

The Semi-Finals

Germany v. Turkey

It's hard to see anything other than a German victory here. Turkey has such selection concerns - including the loss of star striker Nihat to injury, and pacy young winger Arda to suspension - that they have threatened to play their third-choice goalkeeper, in outfield, out of necessity.

Even with a full team, this Turkish side could not be expected to triumph. In getting out of their group they have exceeded even the optimistic expectations of their own fans, and this lucky streak of scoring in injury-time in three successive matches surely cannot continue.

The Germans, on the other hand, are tournament experts. The were favourites before the big kick-off because they score highly on tactical discipline, mental strength, squad depth, the influence of their huge travelling support, and, of course, ability. They have shown their experience in growing through the competition so far, and in Michael Ballack and Lukasz Podolski have two of the players of the tournament so far. A Turkey victory on Wednesday evening would constitute an upset of epic proportions.

Russia v. Spain
Some people will tell you this is an easy one to call. Spain beat Russia 4-1 just two weeks ago, what's the difference now?

The difference is Andrei Arshavin, and a bit of momentum. Arshavin came back for the Sweden game, which Russia could have easily won by five or six goals, and was astonishingly effective against the Netherlands in their 3-1 quarter-final win. He is now being openly talked about as player of the tournament, after only two matches! He is so central to the way that Russia attacks, with five midfielders all willing to run beyond the ball and Arshavin as the fulcrum to take control and decide who gets it. Then there's Anyukov and Zhirkov, Russia's two flying full-backs, who have been exceptional.

Spain celebrated their win over Italy as if they had won the whole competition, and that would concern me as a fan. It's as if they felt Italy was the biggest potential stumbling block, and now that is overcome they should be able to waltz to the final. Not so. Who could foresee the Dutch being so outplayed by the Russians before? And the Spanish, probably the second-best team of the tournament after the Dutch, will be outplayed again here, in my opinion. At this level, football is rarely so straight-forward as to say that a 4-1 win before means another easy win now. For me, this is another extra-time Russian win.

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