||ESPNsoccernet: Euro 2008
Sunday, June 22, 2008
Russia take Hiddink's stock yet higher
Guus Hiddink is giving treachery a good name. It has rarely been as joyous, as invigorating and as entertaining.
The Dutchman, having stated his ambition to be 'the traitor of the year' in Holland, eliminated his homeland from Euro 2008. It is an achievement that, besides marking Russia's entry into the ranks of the European superpowers, should cement Hiddink's status as the leading manager in the international game now.
No one else boasts such a consistent record of overachievement. No one else, too, has flourished with such wildly different teams in such diverse nations. International football has known nomads before, men such as Bora Milutinovic and Philippe Troussier, but none have accomplished as much as Hiddink.
In three continents, with four countries, he has reached the knockout stages of all five major competitions he has entered. In securing Russia a semi-final berth at Euro 2008, Hiddink has repeated a feat he performed with South Korea and Australia: taking a nation further than they have ever been before. The Soviet Union may have been European Championship finalists two decades ago, but Russia's record was miserable. Until now, that is.
In the process, he has made a wider audience wonder why they had not previously appreciated the qualities of his countries. South Korea's brand of high-octane, high-energy football made them irresistible in 2002, yet this is a country that - the Hiddink era apart - has only won one World Cup match. Australia's blend of competitiveness and physicality marked them out as one of the strongest and most resilient sides in Germany, yet they had never emerged victorious on the biggest international stage before his arrival.
Now Russia are among the most accomplished sides at Euro 2008. Their speed and stamina makes them reminiscent of Hiddink's Koreans, their invention and technical qualities bear comparison with the Holland side he managed a decade ago. Yet there are valid reasons why they were underestimated. Third seeds in their qualifying group, they laboured to a 1-0 win over Andorra to reach the finals. Eight months ago, there was no outcry when Russians were ignored when the 50-man shortlist for the European Footballer of the Year award was announced.
Now Russian players - the superb Andrei Arshavin in particular - are gaining currency all over Europe. Hiddink merits some of the credit. In many cases, their exposure on the international stage is thanks to him. That Sergei Semak is the only player with a half-century of caps is no coincidence; Hiddink has ignored established internationals and received wisdom. This is a team of his own creation, their enterprising attacking football purveyed by players undaunted and untainted by past failures.
A sense of timing helps. Hiddink was astute enough to accept the job when a gifted generation where emerging. Fourteen of his squad are aged between 24 and 26 while Arshavin, who turned 27 last month, is only slightly older. Along with the deal bankrolled by Roman Abramovich, it explains a willingness to commit to the Russian cause for a further two years.
Especially as it is emphatically his team. Like his compatriot Dick Advocaat at Zenit St Petersburg, a decision has been made to construct the side around the playmaker Arshavin. Even the suspension that deprived Russia of their No. 10 did not diminish his place in Hiddink's plans as the attacking fulcrum.
But this is a competition where the professional creator is valued. It is among the most endearing features of Euro 2008 that playmakers have such an essential role. Although stationed further up the field than Deco, Luka Modric, Xavi or Andrea Pirlo, Arshavin is a kindred spirit. The merits of his more advanced role are apparent with the number of chances Russia have created against Sweden and Holland.
If they could shed their habit of hitting the woodwork, their progress might have been more serene. Yet drama appears an ever-present in Hiddink's management. His sides have a fondness for the improbable, and a remarkable habit of gaining momentum.
In the case of the Russians, it is supplied by the runners from deep. Perhaps it is a theory that defenders find specialist strikers easier to track - though the infuriating but exhilarating Roman Pavlyuchenko still contrives to avoid them - and perhaps a recognition of Russia's resources in midfield, but Hiddink's plans are hard to combat.
Arguably the most dangerous men make the longest runs. The overlapping full-backs provide another reminder of Dutch teams, both past and present. The converted winger Yuri Zhirkov appears capable of being a one-man left flank and Aleksandr Aniukov, his counterpart on the right, is only a little less attack-minded.
No other side swarms forward quite like them, but there is still scope for managerial inspiration. Including Ivan Saenko on the right of midfield to negate Holland's strength on the left was one; introducing Dmitri Torbinsky, a player with a capacity to make things happen, another. There was no need for false modesty from Hiddink, as his subsequent statement that Russia were superior 'in all components' of the match showed. And, of course, they had an advantage in the dugout.
Whoever wins Euro 2008, and whoever is in the team of the tournament, the outstanding manager is apparent.
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