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Monday, June 23, 2008
A semi-final to savour?

Nick Bidwell

After watching his team slump to a humiliating 4-1 thumping by a rampant Spain in the opening game of Group D, Russia boss and itinerant miracle worker Guus Hiddink insisted his players would have to be fast learners if they wanted to make any sort of progress at Euro 2008.

A fortnight later, they have proved just that, gaining straight A's with wins over Greece, Sweden and Holland and now face a semi-final rematch against the Iberian team which, according to Hiddink made them look like a schoolboy side.

'It's quite amazing how Hiddink has managed to completely transform the team since the start of the tournament, especially at the back,' says Igor Rabiner, a writer with the Russian magazine Sport Express. 'In the first meeting with Spain, we had the sort of defensive performance we had feared before the finals, one that was slow-reacting and naive.

'Villa and Torres were like footballers from another planet. We had no answer to their speed and movement. Compare that with the solid play of the back-four and defensive midfielders in the Dutch match. They were meticulously organised, strong physically and kept Holland out without major problems.

'Hiddink deserves a medal, maybe a statue for the job he's done. He's brought on young players, taught his squad a modern tactical A-Z and given them great self-belief. They really do think they can go all the way now. I don't expect the early defeat by Spain to weigh heavily mentally. We've grown enormously in stature in a very short space of time.

'They see Spain in a different light now,' concludes Rabiner. The desire to set the record straight is a powerful motivation.'

There is no question which Russian player the Spanish will be anxious to neutralise on Thursday in Vienna. Despite missing his country's first two games here because of suspension, attacking midfielder extraordinaire Andrei Arshavin slipped back into top gear against the Swedes and the Dutch as though he had never been away, forever prompting with vision and intelligence, as nimble as a member of the Bolshoi ballet and one of the most technically inspired players in Europe today.

'Arshavin is a little genius,' opines former Russia and Moscow Spartak star Igor Shalimov. 'He can do everything: score, create, read the game and change the tempo, make fast breaks to hurt the opposition, take set pieces and battle for the team.

'He is so influential. When I think that some people thought it was a waste of time to pick him for the Euro 2008 squad because he would only be able to play in one group game. I feel he could be our secret weapon in the semi-final. Spain did not see him up close and that could be to our advantage.

'We've seen some great individual work from other players as well. Yuri Zhirkov at left-back has improved no end, in midfield Sergei Semak, Igor Semshov and Konstantin Zyrianov are all industrious and good users of the ball and up front Roman Pavlyuchenko is finally adding consistency to his talent. The team is playing with great harmony and skill and that must count against the Spanish,' says Shalimov.

For so long the great under-achievers of international football, Spain's victory on penalties over Italy in Vienna on Sunday night was one of huge psychological and historical significance.

Reaching their first European Championship semi since 1984 is proof positive the current 'seleccion' are on the right road, while a first win against Italy for 88 years and an end to their shoot out jinx (they lost from the spot to Belgium at the 1986 World Cup, England at Euro 96 and South Korea at World Cup 2002) got a pair of monkeys off their backs in one fell swoop.

'Qualifying at the expense of such outstanding competitors as Italy is, I hope, a sign that our national team is maturing,' says ex-Spain left-back Antonio Gordillo. 'We didn't play with the same freedom of expression we saw earlier in the competition.

'Neither Fernando Torres or David Villa were at their best, but we did what we had to do to get through. When you play Italy you have to show the same hunger and commitment as them as well as remembering it's a tactical contest. We were always mindful of the damage Italy can do on the break,' continues Gordillo.

'I thought we deserved to come out on top, even if it was on penalties. I thought we controlled the game without going flat out. We kept the ball better than the Italians, pressed them well in midfield and made the most chances. David Silva in midfield was excellent and to me looks every inch a big game player.

'The semi-final with Russia will be a totally different type of game, much more open. The Russians are like us; they are attack-conscious and need to circulate the ball. What impresses me about them is the fluid way they play, their great physical condition and Arsahivin, who is an artist,' says Gordillo.

'At the end of the day the greater experience in our team should see us through. Spain will not lapse into complacency because we beat Russia a fortnight ago. Aragones will see to that,' concludes the former Spanish international.

Dominique Rocheteau, the star attacker of the French side which won the European title in 1984 and was twice a World Cup semi-finalist, is convinced this semi-final will be one for the purists to savour

'This game, in my opinion, is a duel between the two best attacking sides at the tournament,' he says 'Neither likes to sit back and wait for the other side to make a mistake. Both go forward at pace, both build up slickly with lots of options for the man in possession and perhaps most importantly of all both have players capable of producing improvised skill; I'm thinking of Torres and Arshavin.

'The pressure of semi-finals can sometimes make them uninteresting for the spectator. I don't expect it to be the case here.'

As the two sides doing in Vienna on Thursday night are not familiar with life at this end of a major tournament, pressure is bound to play a role in the second Euro 2008 semi-final. Whoever holds their nerve for the longest are likely to win the day.

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