Friday, June 27, 2008

Euro 2008: Spain vs Russia (S/F)

Spain crush Russia to reach Final

Score: Russia 0-3 Spain

Lightning does strike twice. Echoing the three-goal margin with which they defeated Russia as Euro 2008 opened, Spain last night glided to the tournament's climax with some memorable second-half moves as thunder and lightning crackled around the Ernst Happel Stadium.

The final of Spain versus Germany represents a broadcaster's dream, and a fascinating collision of cultures. The empty seats surprisingly evident here last night will not be seen on Sunday for a heavyweight conclusion to a marvellous tournament.

Spain's football last night was of an elevated class that England can only dream of, the ball caressed at speed between friendly feet, the touch as instant as the vision was inspired. Russia, so vibrant since that Innsbruck rout, were simply outplayed again, with Andrei Arshavin a particular disappointment.

Russia's No 10 dreams of a move to Barcelona and it was two Camp Nou regulars who dominated midfield. Xavi scored Spain's first while Andres Iniesta delivered one of those box-to-box displays that makes one understand why Cesc Fabregas cannot get a place in Luis Aragones' starting XI.

But when he came on for David Villa, Fabregas was outstanding, delivering the perfect passes for Daniel Guiza and David Silva to put Russia to the sword. Such was the speed of Spanish movement, Russia's midfielders and defenders might just as well have sat in the stand for all their ability to intervene.

Even before Spain conjured up some exquisite second-half goals, the day had brought many remarkable sights and sounds, first with a Russian woman spending 200,000 euros on jewellery in Vienna city centre and then Michel Platini threatening meltdown in the Premier League fixture computer by suggesting Euro 2012 starts in August.

Oligarch partners and Uefa dignitaries then stepped past the rain puddles outside the storm-hit stadium wondering whether Spain could repeat their group-stage trouncing of Russia.

They had to wait until after the break for confirmation. Xavi struck midway through the second period, reacting superbly to turn in Iniesta's cross-shot. Spain's drenched fans raised the roof. Then Guiza reacted brilliantly to Fabregas' magnificent pass to put the game beyond Russia.

Victory was deserved for Spain's skilled technicians, who also had the game's best player in Sergio Ramos who was terrific up and down the right. Fabregas also made his customary impact when coming on for Spain.

Aragones' side had certainly started the better in a game that took time to get going. Spain had been the first to show, Fernando Torres, Villa and Ramos testing Igor Akinfeev's reflexes.

Ramos, superb throughout, embodied the theme of full-backs pushing on, showing as much naked ambition as the 200 Russian fans who ripped off their shirts and stood there in the teeming rain, willing Mother Nature to do her worst. Russia's left-back, Yuri Zhirkov, kept charging forward, doing one lovely dink to lift the ball over Villa.

Zhirkov was so far forward at one point in the first half, he created a superb opening for Russia by sliding in and nicking the ball away from Carles Puyol, whose bedraggled locks gave him the air of a Dulux dog emerging from a particularly enjoyable puddle.

Zhirkov nudged the ball onto Roman Pavlyuchenko, whose response highlighted why so many clubs are watching the Spartak Moscow striker. His right foot crashed down in the glistening ball, sending it swerving at speed towards Spain's goal.

Only a keeper of the quality of Iker Casillas would have reacted well enough, throwing his body to the left and stretching out a gloved finger to tip the ball to safety. It was a vital moment, preventing Russia from claiming the lead.

Such are the fractions that prevent goals, and Casillas' connection with the ball occurred in such a blur of movement that the Belgian referee, Frank de Bleeckere, did not spot the save and awarded a goal-kick. Pavlyuchenko did, and gesticulated for a corner, determined something from the good work of Zhirkov.

The width provided by full-backs like Zhirkov and Ramos allowed the game to breath a bit, although the second semi was far from a classic.

Central midfield threatened to become a crowded house with the anchoring Marcos Senna and Xavi soon joined by Fabregas, following a muscle injury sustained by Villa while taking a free-kick.

Russia also deployed a holding midfielder, Sergei Semak, allowing Igor Semshov to raid forward, linking with Arshavin, who lacked his recent spark. Spain had more of the ball, looking to build their neat passing moves, although they had to work out how best to accommodate Xavi and Fabregas in the centre.

Yet it was the understanding of two Barcelona team-mates, Iniesta and Xavi, rather than the attacking instincts of a midfielder raised in Catalonia that paid dividends.

When Iniesta raced down the left, Xavi made his move into the box. The ball arrived rather fortuitously, Iniesta's cross-shot flashing in front of him but Xavi's reaction was terrific, diverting the ball at speed past Akinfeev.

Now liberated, Spain really began expressing themselves and Torres should have turned in an inviting right-wing cross from the outstanding Ramos. The Russians tired, their stamina drained by chasing the ball as Spain's skilled technicians worked it around them so expertly.

Aragones set Russian further problems when sending on Guiza, removing Torres and looking to the Real Mallorca forward to lead the line and bring Spain's midfielders into play. Guiza responded superbly, scoring to kill off any lingering hopes the Russians may have had.

Spain's second goal was started by Ramos, whose drive in from the right and pass to Fabregas, completely caught Russia out. Fabregas' response was magnificent, the ball chipped first-time over Russia's defence for Guiza to chase. Chesting the ball down, he adroitly clipped it past the onrushing Akinfeev.

"Viva Espana" continued to ring out, intensifying when Fabregas crossed for the hard-working Silva, one of the players of the tournament, to place his shot past Akinfeev.

Source: Telegraph; Image courtesy: Getty Images

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