After two weeks of high drama, late-game heroics (18 goals in the tournament have come after the 85th minute) and the usual penalty shootout heartbreaks, Euro 2008 is down to the last four teams: Germany will play Turkey, while Spain takes on Russia. Here's a look at the players to watch and the story lines to follow as we head into the semifinals.
Four story lines to follow:
1. Is Guus Hiddink the world's best coach?If he's not, the 61-year-old Dutchman is certainly close. For the third successive major tournament, Hiddink has taken an underdog team, maximized its strengths and has it playing like world-beaters. His Russian team plays a high-tempo, high-energy attacking brand of soccer, reminiscent of his Korean squad that reached the 2002 World Cup semifinals. Like that team, this Russian squad is young and has seemingly endless stamina, but the key difference is that this team has far greater technical proficiency than Korea did and far more dangerous playmakers. The only thing missing from Hiddink's managerial résumé is an international title, and with this Russian team, he certainly has a shot. 2. Can Turkey's Cinderella story continue? After a lackluster opening defeat to Portugal, very few people expected Turkey to survive the initial group stage, let alone make the semifinals. Turkey's path has been nothing short of remarkable with amazing comebacks in each of its past three games, where defeat appeared to be the likeliest outcome. It's unlikely Turkey's fearless attacking mentality and wave of good fortune can continue much longer. Against Germany, Turkey will be missing its key troika of match-winning talent: brilliant young winger Turan Arda (out with a yellow card suspension), midfield maestro Tuncay Sanli (also suspended) and key striker Nihat Kahveci (ruled out for the rest of the tournament with a leg injury). Those losses will likely prove too great to overcome.
|Euro 2008 schedule|
|Germany vs. Turkey
St. Jakob Park, Basel, Switzerland
2:45 p.m. ET, ESPN
Spain vs. Russia
Ernst Happel Stadion, Vienna, Austria
2:45 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Germany might have sprung to life following Ballack's shift to the top of the midfield diamond, but Podolski has been the Germans' most consistently incisive attacking player. Whether he's drifted out on the left wing or been utilized as a conventional striker up top, Podolski has looked like a constant threat to score.2. Rustu Recber, Turkey. It's easy to forget that at one point earlier this decade, Turkey's Recber was considered one of the best goalkeepers in the world -- that is, before a failed move to Barcelona in 2003 (and questionable work habits) sent his career into a downward spiral. With Turkish No. 1 Volkan Demirel suspended for two games, Recber stepped in against Croatia and showed flashes of both extreme brilliance and ineptness. The version we see against Germany could be key to the outcome. 3. Andrei Arshavin, Russia. Even though he has only played two games, Russia's brilliant playmaker is already a leading candidate for Player of the Tournament with his propensity to pop up all over the attacking third. Arshavin's addition to the lineup has single-handedly transformed Russia into a team which is playing its own version of Dutch Total Football. Arshavin is angling for a move from his domestic club (Zenit St. Petersburg) to a bigger stage, and after this tournament, the queue for his services from many of Europe's biggest teams will be long, indeed. 4. Fernando Torres, Spain. It's not so much that Torres has been disappointing, it's more that he has yet to live up to pretournament expectations. The Liverpool striker has shown flashes at times, but hasn't consistently produced the dazzling form that lit up the English Premier League this past season. His club and international teammates such as Alvaro Arbeloa have suggested that the national team's style of play and slow buildup doesn't play to Torres' strengths, but there's no question that for Spain to win this tournament, Torres will need to play better. Semifinal predictions Germany vs. Turkey: With Turkey missing so many key players through injury and suspension, it's difficult to see Fatih Terim's team pulling off another upset. After all, one can live on the edge for only so long. Turkey's injury list is at crisis proportions (only 15 outfield players were available against Croatia and three of those are suspended for the Germany game). As for the Germans, the shift in formation from a regimented 4-4-2 has galvanized the team offensively, and on the other side of the ball, Germany is the most defensively solid team left in the tournament. It's hard to see anything but a German victory here.
Spain vs. Russia: The two teams met earlier in the tournament, with Spain winning easily 4-1, but you can throw that result out the window. This is a different Russian team now, bolstered by Arshavin's return and free of the first-game jitters that seemed to plague them. Having said that, Spain's ability to control possession will severely curtail the Russian attack that shredded the Dutch defense time and time again. Spain's central back pairing of Carles Puyol and Carlos Marchena also has been shaky at times, but the key difference is that unlike the Dutch, Spain has a genuine midfield ball-winner in Marcos Senna who can provide a defensive shield for its back four. Russia's problems will also be compounded with the loss of influential defender Dennis Kolodin through suspension, compounding its inability to defend set pieces. I see Spain winning again, though not as comfortably as before.
Jen Chang is the U.S. editor for ESPNsoccernet and also writes a blog Armchair Musings. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.