Russia Marches On . . .

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Russia tries to keep up the momentum as it looks to face Spain on Thursday.  Ger Clancy, our ever loving Irishman, breaks down Russia’s run and their chances for the cup.

After more than 16 years in the doldrums, Russian football is finally going places. Not since Euro ’88 have Russian footballers seen the second round of any international major tournament. Now their inspired victory over a highly-rated Dutch team, who had swept away all before them, has landed them a Euro 2008 semi-final spot against Spain. Sure, the Russians have not been without some good fortune in their quest. Nevertheless they are certainly deserving of a semi-final place and their attacking football in the last two games has won them over on the side of many neutrals. The Russians are a win away from a finals appearance, and two from a championship win. This was a possibility unthinkable a mere two weeks ago. But it was an outcome easily divined once coach Guus Hiddink’s brought in Andrei Arshavin (even though he was suspended for the first two games).  Hiddick’s move has defined Russia’s tournament.

If you would have suggested that Russia would be a semi-final contender two weeks ago would have been greeted with doubt if not raucous laughter.  After all, Russia couldn’t have begun the tournament any worse than they did in their opening game with Spain in Salzburg. In spite of a decent start, in which they held the ball well but lacked urgency, Russia conceded a very cheap goal when Fernando Torres skinned Denis Kolodin to set up David Villa. Everything went to pieces after that. The Spaniards eventually won 4-1, with Villa netting a hat-trick, a rare thing in international football and harsh lesson for the Russians. The Slavs performance was atrocious. Poor passing, no running off the ball, no pace to their game, and suicidal defending greased Spain’s victory. The Russians, however, would learn from the defeat.

Russia’s next match against Greece was a do-or-die game for both teams. Both had lost their opening games. The Greeks went down 2-0 to Sweden in an insipid performance. Although Russia improved immensely from the first match, their play was extremely nervous and uncertain. Their fate hinged on a goalkeeping disaster at 33 minutes when Nikopolodis charged rashly from his line to deal with a hopeless through ball from Bilyatidinov. Sergei Semak beat Nikopolodis and crossed the ball for Konstantin Zyrianov to push it into an empty net. It gave Russia 1-0 lead and the precious lifeline they desperately needed. The second half petered out into possibly the worst game of the tournament. The expected Greek lacked effort and their comeback never materialized. Three precious points for the Russians now meant a win against Sweden would take them through to the last eight.

Arshavin came back just in time to duel with the Swedes.  Russia looked immensely improved to battle their medieval rivals. After a shaky start, the Russians took control of the ball and hardly lost it for almost an hour.  By half, they had an unassailable 2-0 lead against a Swedish team which simply forgot to show up. Arshavin skinned Mellburg and Nillsonn time and again on the Swedish right, immediately validating Hiddick’s move to bring him onboard. After a number of misses Russia finally took the lead on 24 minutes when Anyukov crossed to an unmarked Pavluchenko who slotted home. Russia kept Sweden on the ropes until their second goal when Zhrikov crossed for Arshavin to calmly slot home.

Russia lost a lot of control in the game from that point on, easily and often surrendering possession, but there was no need to worry. Sweden’s strikers couldn’t hit the side of a barn.  Russia could have gobbled up more goals on the break, but 2-0 satisfied their hunger. And so, for the first time ever, a Russian national football team reached the second round of a major tournament. Finally some joy for their long-suffering fans.

Much has been written about Russia’s victory over Holland. And frankly, much of it is rubbish. There is no doubt Russia outplayed them, even embarrassed them. But much of the analysis fails to take a number of important factors into account. First, Holland went up in smoke. This is not unusual and football fans are well aware of the Dutch tendency to implode when the world is at their feet. Secondly, the management on the Dutch bench was as incompetent as it was lazy. No attempt was made to change things significantly, especially on the tactical front. It was clear from the start that Sneijder, Van Der Vaart and De Jong were being cleaned out by Ignashevich and Kolodin. Although Robbin Van Persie did come on at half time, Anyukov simply disappeared. The Dutch were also clearly exhausted and the Russians obviously much fitter.

None of this is to take away from Russia’s excellent performance.  It was probably the single best performance ever by a Russian national team. From early on they took the game to Holland and eventually were rewarded early in the second half when Semak crossed for Pavlyuchenko to score. From this point on, a Dutch comeback was expected but it never happened. Laboured, tired and listless, the Dutch were consistently beaten to 50/50 balls and were reduced to sporadic shots that went hopelessly wide or over. The Russians motored on and kept the Dutch at arms length in total comfort, until disaster struck right at the end when Van Nistelrooy headed an inswinger past Akinfeev from close in. That was hard blow to the Russians, but in extra time they took up where they left off and almost completely dominated in midfield. Early in the second period of extra-time, the Dutch finally collapsed when, for the umpteenth time Arshavin skinned Andre Oijer and crossed for Torbinskii to finish sweetly. A short time later Arshavin himself killed off the Dutch with a cool finish at the far post. With that, Moscow exploded.

So, can Russia really win it all? The Russians are now at the centre of much speculation and indeed betting, and they certainly can win the tournament. They are without a doubt the darlings of the championship and loved by neutrals for their attacking football. Beating the Dutch would have won them a lot of fans around Europe too. But is all this enough? A lot of comparisons have been made, especially with Greece in 2004, but I’m sure Hiddink would prefer another role model. Greece was the most unpopular winners ever, owing to their atrocious style of play. Russia in ‘08 is more like Denmark in 1992: swashbuckling, all-attack and hugely entertaining. There is no doubt the Russians can beat Spain, and may well do so.

Still, Russia is not without its problems. Kolodin and Torbinskii are suspended and the former is likely to be replaced by Vasilli Berezutskii, an off-form player who hasn’t kicked a ball in the tournament yet. He’s facing a long night marking Fernando Torres. Spain will be battled hardened and wily after their bruising encounter with Italy, and the Russian habit of standing off forwards and allowing them to run at Ignashevich and Berezutskii will be punished, just as Denis Kolodin was against the Greeks. Russia’s weakest link by far is their goalkeeper Akinfeev, who is surely the poorest left in the tournament. Also the game with Holland may have taken a lot out of the Russians both physically and mentally.  Performances as big as that are very difficult to follow up. Hiddink however, has, as usual, come up trumps so far, so too have the players and it may not be beyond the Russians to bring the cup home….

Vperyod, Rossiya!

Russia v Spain, Euro 2008 Semi-Final, Thursday June 26th 22.45 MSK, 19.45 GMT, 14.45 EST 11.45 PST