Saturday, 28 June 2008

Euro 2008 Semi-Finals

feature for blogcritics
Germany 3 - 2 Turkey

This should have been easy for Germany. Turkey, decimated by injuries and suspensions, only had three fit outfield players on the bench, and were missing several of their best players like Nihat, Tuncay, Emre, Arda, and first-choice goalkeeper Volkan. Yet they still were by far the better team in this game, ditching their usual cagey style for an attacking attitude that saw them deservedly take the lead after 22 minutes. The German defence was static as the ball rebounded off the crossbar to the feet of Ugur Boral, who couldn't fail to score from a yard out.

But, as Turkey have barely held a lead all tournament (scoring so late means they've never had to), so it was again as Germany equalised four minutes later with their very first attack. A burst of left-wing pace from Podolski took him clear, and his low cross was deftly flicked home by Bastian Schweinsteiger (above). But Germany didn't capitalise on this quick comeback, which would have deflated teams of lesser mental strength than the Turks. Instead the game carried on as before, with Turkey making all the running, and Germany swanning around as if they wanted to win the game at walking pace.

With 11 minutes to go at the end of the game, and with the whole world blacked-out due to electrical storms in Vienna causing a cut in the TV broadcast, Germany took an undeserved lead. Big striker Miroslav Klose, who had barely even touched the ball up until this point, rose to meet a header and was delighted to see the ball bounce into an empty net as the Turkish goalkeeper, Rustu, had came for the cross and missed it completely. It was a horrible error from Rustu, who also made a horrible error against Croatia: how Turkey must curse the suspension of Volkan. But never write off the Turks, and sure enough they were able to score another last-5 goal - their fifth of the tournament.

Again it was little Semih Senturk who got it, glancing home at the near post after winger Sabri had humiliated Germany's much-vaunted left-back Philipp Lahm and got a cross in. But by their standards, Turkey had equalised too early - there was still four minutes to go! That's where Lahm made up for his defensive lapse by scoring a wonderful goal of his own making - bursting in from the left-flank, he played a one-two with Hitzlsperger before slamming the ball high past Rustu. But the late winner for Germany won't disguise the fact that they were very poor in this game.

Unusually considering their long-standing reputation, this looks like a German side which is very good going forward - mostly thanks to Podolksi and Schweinsteiger on the flanks - but very shaky in defence.

Spain 3 - 0 Russia

Russia were taught a lesson in the other semi-final. With hindsight, it seems some people (ahem) might have got a bit carried away after Russia's 3-1 beating of the Netherlands in the quarter-final, and with Andrei Arshavin's display too.

Here he was virtually anonymous, as Arsenal's Cesc Fabregas came off the bench to perform the Arshavin role much better for the Spanish. That substitution was the result of a first-half injury to David Villa, the competition's top-scorer who had bagged a hat-trick in Spain's opening game against Russia. He will now miss the final. Fabregas should probably start in his place, playing in the hole behind Fernando Torres, because he was in brilliant form here in that role. Barcelona midfielder Xavi (above) opened the scoring five minutes after half-time by sliding home a cross-cum-shot from club team-mate Andres Iniesta.

After that goal, the Russian's confidence and energy drained away from them entirely, and the result was never really in doubt. The Spanish midfield, the most impressive of the tournament, passed the ball through the Russians with ease, and it was Fabregas who made the telling pass for the second goal. His gorgeous flick landed in the path of substitute striker Dani Guiza, who chested it down and hooked the ball over the oncoming Russian goalkeeper Akinfeev. David Silva wrapped up the tie with a third goal eight minutes from time: some tidy close passing on the left-side of midfield ended with a lofted ball forward by Iniesta towards Fabregas on the wing; he took it forward and found Silva in the middle, who controlled it and drilled the ball low past Akinfeev with his left foot.

The Final
Germany v. Spain

Spain will go into the final as favourites. They have been the best side of the tournament: they won the full nine points in the group, drew with the world champions Italy and won the shoot-out, and easily beat a revitalised and much-fancied Russia in the semi-final. In contrast, Germany have huffed and puffed past their comparatively easy draw: they beat Poland with ease, meekly lost to Croatia, scraped past a dreadful Austria team, were good in dispatching with Portugal, and then stumbled past a half-strength Turkish side in their semi-final. They've lost four goals in the two knock-out games; and yes, they've scored six, but at least three of those were profits taken from basic defensive errors.

Podolski has been the key man for Germany so far, assisted here and there by good displays from Schweinsteiger, Ballack, and Lahm. But more players have had poor tournaments: yes I'm looking at you Mario Gomez, but also Marcell Jansen, Miroslav Klose, Simon Rolfes, Arne Friedrich and Jens Lehmann. In contrast, almost every Spanish player will come out of this tournament with enhanced reputations: Fernando Torres has been terrific up-front despite only scoring once, while the midfield of Senna, Xavi, Iniesta and Fabregas has been impossible to dispossess at times.

So on paper, everything points to a Spanish win. But football fans aware of their history will know it's not quite as easy as that: Germany are renowned as tournament experts, capable of grinding out results against less experienced opposition; Spain are renowned for being big-game bottlers, for always playing well while never being actually able to achieve anything palpable. Admittedly my predictions so far have been way off the mark (and unfortunately are published for everyone to see and mock), but I'll stick my neck on the line again anyway: Spain.

Or perhaps Germany.

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