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Friday, June 27, 2008
The best is yet to come

Phil Ball

Twenty four years after blowing it in Paris, in a tournament that nobody had expected them to get to, let alone reach the final, Spain will march out a far superior squad in Vienna on Sunday to the one that capitulated to that wonderful French side of 1984. With their fifth straight win of the competition, they have sailed into the final against Germany in such style that they are now the favourites to win - a curious fact given the pedigree of the opponents that await them.

What a fantastic performance against the Russians! I watched the game in France, on a giant screen in a campsite near Arcachon, on the Aquitaine coast. I'll be back across the Spanish border in good time for Sunday's game, but it was interesting to see how a 'neutral' audience would regard the Spain v Russia game, since both sides had made themselves popular with their commitment to open play.

The large German contingent from the previous evening (according to my wife - I was still in Spain) was largely absent, which was odd given that one of their opponents was displaying its wares and weapons before Sunday's final combat. There were plenty of French, quite a few Brits and Spanish, with a smattering of Dutch and Scandinavians - judging by the complexions on show. But the sympathies towards Spain were soon apparent, or maybe it was simply a matter of supporting the side that was making all the running. When Xavi finally scored in the 50th minute, the place erupted, as if justice had been done. There was no anti-Russian sentiment in the cheer, simply one of relief that, in contrast to the previous night, the gods were favouring the brave.

Rarely have I seen such a one-sided game in a semi-final at this level of competition. The Russians, supposedly fresher, fitter and younger, were simply blown off stage. The simplicity of the Spanish approach - keep the ball and run the opposition dizzy - worked so devastatingly well that it raises questions about how really great Guus Hiddink is. Or perhaps one should praise him for trying to go head to head with the Spanish, instead of sitting back and trying to defend in the final third, as the Italians did in such stultifying fashion. In the first half there were glimmers of occasional hope for the Russians, a few isolated attacks and a couple of half chances for Pavlyuchenko - but it didn't amount to much. Then when the competition's top scorer, David Villa, went off injured, after pulling up taking a free-kick, the clouds appeared to be clearing even more on the Russian horizon.

No such luck. Aragonés made the surprising decision to put on Cesc Fabregas, reverting to a sort of 4-4-1-1 formation, with the Arsenal midfielder pushed up ahead of the four but lying deeper than Villa had been playing. You could argue that it was 4-5-1 but the difference was academic. The Russians lost the plot from that moment on, and even though they stumbled to half-time still in the game at 0-0, it was only a matter of time before they succumbed. They rallied briefly after Xavi's goal, but Spain's insistence on scoring a second to wrap up the game (instead of sitting on their lead) simply prolonged the Russian's agony.

Where was Arshavin? Was he playing? Perhaps he was distracted by the news that morning from his agent by the amount of euros that Barcelona were apparently prepared to put on the table to sign him. Or perhaps the truth was more prosaic. Russia simply couldn't get the ball, and neither could they retain possession for long enough in the supply areas, two factors that simply starved him of the ball. Zhirkov was similarly absent from proceedings, but part of the reason was that Ramos was back to his pre-tournament self, dispossessing everything in sight and then charging off down the right at every possible opportunity. Given the sight of him doing this, the Russians found themselves doing the opposite of what they had been told, and the Russians don't really chase the game very well. They prefer to be in control. But they were overwhelmed both tactically and technically by a Spain side that at times looked quite awesome. Perhaps for this reason alone it's unfair to criticise.

Russia have done well, and several of their players have put themselves into the shop window, assuming that they want to move. But they had no answer to Spain's midfield. Before the tournament it was this strength to which everyone was referring, and in the end it has proved correct.

The only question mark about Spain's midfield in the first four games was the apparent lack of spark shown by Iniesta, so often Barcelona's inspiration this season when all about him was floundering. There had been calls for Aragonés to replace him from the start with Fabregas, but once again the old man stuck to his guns and was rewarded for his belief by a fantastic performance by the pale-faced, skinny Iniesta, who continues to look like a B-movie actor from the Horror Zone but whose performance against Russia belonged more in the Olivier mode. As if determined to prove everyone wrong (save his manager) Iniesta ran the Russians ragged, with exactly the sort of movement and invention that Arshavin had been demonstrating since his return. But as already mentioned, you need to have the ball. Iniesta seemed to have it all the time, and it was only logical that he was the player who finally broke the deadlock, ghosting across to the left and whipping in a low cross that his team-mate Xavi, running into the area, met first time with a simple volley. Game over, in truth.

Fabregas then set up the next two, with an especially exquisite chipped pass to set up Güiza for rhe second, after Torres had once again been substituted. Güiza looks like nothing special, but he is a poacher of impeccable instincts, a player who simply puts it away if you set him up with a chance. He came on and scored after four minutes on the field, and when Xabi Alonso replaced Xavi in the 69th minute my Spanish friend remarked to me 'Es que tenemos de sobra!' (We've got quality to spare). The luxuries available to Aragonés which everyone has been talking about for so long suddenly danced into focus - only to be further emphasised when Silva scored the third. Two years ago he was loaned out to Eibar, in the Spanish Second Division. Now he's one of the key players in the country - unselfish, hard-working and very skilful. He was simply another nail in Russia's coffin. They couldn't cope with him.

And last but not least, Spain's alleged defensive frailties were hardly apparent on Thursday night. For starters, nothing got past Marcos Senna, for me Spain's player of the tournament so far. Every time Russia got into the last third, Senna seemed to come out of the ruck with the ball calmly in possession. He did everything right, in a lesson of how to play the central midfield defensive spot. He looked like Makelele's twin, and there is no greater compliment than that. When people express surprise at Villarreal's excellent season, they need look no further.

Spain have beaten flair (Russia), pragmatism (Italy) and experience (Sweden) so far in this tournament. Let's forget about Greece. I'm not sure where Germany stand on that podium of nouns in the paragraph's opening sentence, but despite all their virtues another noun stands out - luck. Spain haven't had a great deal of that in this tournament, largely because they haven't needed it. You make your own luck? Well - Germany could argue that, with some justification. I would argue that they're going to need even larger dollops of it on Sunday. Viva España!


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