Sunday, June 15, 2008

EURO 2008: Day Nine

EURO 2008: Day Nine.
Can the Spanish onions beat the clockwork Oranje?

Spain, football's eternal bridesmaid, seem to have the luck of the Irish on their side after David Villa's last-gasp winner felled the Swedes yesterday, although there is an argument that says you make your own luck in life, as in football.

The Spanish advance to play one of France, Italy or Romania in the quarter-finals. If current form continues, the tournament's two most impressive teams will meet in the Vienna semi-final on the 26th of June.

Perhaps we should not read too much into Spain's 4-1 thrashing of the Russians. Many a time a country has begun with a convincing win and then not made it out of the first round (e.g. the Czech Republic in the 2006 World Cup). Against Sweden, the Spanish were not so dominant, and conceded parts of the game to a well-drilled, physical outfit, perhaps a precedent for when they play the Dutch. They might have dominated possession 63% to 37% overall, but the Swedes looked just as likely to score.

Shooting stars Fernando Torres and David Villa were not on fire, even if the latter grabbed a late winner.

Over the 90 minutes, a draw would have been the fairest result, forcing the Spanish into another period of soul-searching. World Soccer's Sid Lowe encapsulated their traditional attitude thus: "There is an awkward co-existence of superiority and inferiority complexes in the Spanish footballing mindset."

For all their attacking prowess, the Spanish, like the Dutch, look less steady in defence than some of the other teams in this tournament. Valencia centre-backs Raul Albiol and Carlos Marchena looked shaky in possession and a yard short of pace yesterday. Carlos Puyol felt the wrath of Luis Aragones for missing a pass and was substituted, but is still the best choice in the middle of defence.

Joan Capdevila provided the assist for the winner and overlapped several times, but is not the best left-back I have ever seen, not in the class of Bixente Lizarazu when France won the World Cup, for instance.

Sergio Ramos on the right is a steady presence in defence and a useful foil attack, but his opposite number Fredrik Stoor was at least as effective for the Swedes.

Marcos Senna as midfield anchor is an unsung hero. He has been solid throughout and a more than adequate replacement for Xabi Alonso.

Xavi in midfield is an unusual combination - a creative terrier, and while the wide men Andres Iniesta and David Silva are not world class, they play their part in Spain's impressive tiki-taka (pass and move) ensemble. That a team who play on the floor passing football first and foremost could win a tournament is something to celebrate for the neutrals out there, who are the vast majority of viewers.

The Dutch look physically stronger than the Spanish though, and more capable of launching rapier thrusts upfield. The way Arjen Robben stormed up the left wing to restore Holland's lead only seconds after Thierry Henry had pulled one back for France should ring warning bells.

If there are weaknesses in the Netherlands' line-up they are surely not in attack, while their midfield has several offensive options too. That said, both Italy and France did boss the game for periods in their respective defeats, a hopeful sign for the Spanish's possession-based system. In defence too, I don't rate the Dutch as highly as say the Croatians or Swedes, but the results thus far speak for themselves.

The Dutch themselves have been surprised how the overly defensive Oranje seen in the qualifiers has suddenly metamorphosed into the all guns blazing eleven who have taken EURO 2008 by storm.

"We are still trying to get our heads round this," Ruud Van Nistelrooy admitted. "We couldn't expect this as we didn't have the best of form before the tournament started. Now it seems everything is falling into place."

  • WAKEY-WAKEY If any Spain fans were wondering why they had not seen anything of Real Mallorca forward Daniel Guïza so far, perhaps it is because he has admitted Luis Aragones' pre-match briefings when he was in charge at Mallorca sent him to sleep. "It's happened twice," he admitted, "but with Aragones it was when I was exhausted. The screen of the television was really small; I could barely see anything and I dropped off. Not once, but twice."

  • LUCKY LUKA From what we have seen so far, who will become the star of the tournament? Cristiano Ronaldo, after his match-winning moments against the Czech Republic, will be many peoples’ choice. Or how about David Villa, author of that deliciously skilful hat-trick against Russia? Or maybe Lukas Podolski, the competition’s ‘top gun’ so far. None of these, according to Croatia coach Slaven Bilic, who says the star of Euro 2008 can be Luka Modric. And one of his players to boot, fancy that!

  • TICKETS PLEASE! One really pleasing aspect of the Euros thus far has been the amount of fans in the stadia. I am not talking about the attendances - six of the eight venues used are of the UEFA minimum 30,000 capacity. Each game has unsurprisingly looked sold out, as opposed to sold out, if you know what I mean, but did the idiot announcer at Innsbruck yesterday have to remind us of the fact during the game? The percentage of fans to total attendees must be very high. The corporate slugs are not here in such obscene numbers like they are at the World Cup Finals. Who can forget the 1998 Final unfolding amid an 80,000-seat venue stuffed with freeloading sponsors and guests, almost none of whom wore colours or chanted. Bravo, Michel Platini, well done UEFA. Now why can’t FIFA do the same and hand the game back to the fans? Sepp Blatter is always striving to protect the integrity of the international game, so why does not his organisation protect the integrity of the fan culture, too?

  • KEYS TO SUCCESS Proof that the Austrian Mannschaft (national team) are all forged in the mold of Arnold Schwarzenegger came yesterday when skipper Andreas Ivanitsch admitted that if he had not become a footballer, he would have become a pianist instead.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile
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