Tuesday, June 10, 2008

EURO 2008 - Don't mention the Germans

EURO 2008.
Results 10th June:
Spain 4:1 Russia (Villa 20' 45' 75', Pavluchenko 86', Fabregas 90'), Innsbruck
Sweden 2:0 Greece (Ibrahimovic 67', Hansson 73'), Salzburg

Now we have seen all the teams, what have we learnt so far?

Ibrahimovic's golazo against Greece was the most spectacular goal, Spain's 4-1 torching of Russia the most alluring and the Dutch's 3-0 thumping of Italy the stand-out result of the first slew of games.

Fears that the Oranje would miss Arjen Robben proved groundless as they trounced the World Champions, defeating the Azzurri for the first time since Nottingham Forest were last crowned English champions.

Italy has been awash with soul-searching today after such a clamorous capitulation. Italian back fours are supposed to be as compact as ranks of Roman legionary, not crumble like old Garibaldi biscuits left in the tin for too long.

In midfield and attack too, the azure blues were decidedly off-colour as the Dutch sailed past them time and again, bagging three goals when it could have been more. All of a sudden, the in-vogue formation of 4-1-4-1 looked rather ropey.

How fortunes change. Marco Van Basten is once again the Netherlands' poster boy after serious doubts were raised following his team's heavy weather in qualifying, while the blissful memory of the World Cup triumph in Germany has begun to fade.

My suspicion is the Dutch are yet to prove they can be consistent so let us not get carried away. Remember how the Dutch steamrollered Yugoslavia 6-1 in the Euro 2000 quarter-final before grinding to a 0-0 draw and defeat on penalties against Italy in the semi-final.

More recently, they began the 2006 World Cup at a canter, dispatching Serbia 6-0 in the first round before succumbing dismally 1-0 to Portugal in an ill-tempered game that produced four red cards and eight yellow cards.

It was a Dutchman who coined the phrase 'sexy football' but it wasn't his countrymen playing the hottest soccer so far in the Alps. That award goes to Spain, who followed a stop-start 1-0 win over the USA in their final preparation match with a 4-1 mutilation of Russia and Guus Hiddink.

How much should we read into Spain's deliciously simple pass and move soccer I am not sure. Russia were rubber in defence and, here comes my two cents, I could not imagine England being so outplayed had they qualified in place of them.

Russia, let us not forget, were woeful 3-0 losers at Wembley in qualifying and also lost away to Israel, only scraping into the finals courtesy of England's self-destruction at home to Croatia in their final game. Guus Hiddink may be one of the world's top coaches, but his CV looked creased after Spain had finished with his latest team.

Other sidesvmaking up the numbers are Poland and Turkey, who were utterly insipid losing to Portugal. And Greece, you might say, but I shall defend Otto Rehagel's team for providing some welcome entertainment.

The sight of the Salzburg arena booing and whistling the Greeks for their negative play was wonderful theatre. Yes, we all want to be entertained and God forbid every team played like Greece, but I have a sneaking admiration for a team who managed to win Euro 2004 without any flair and who have the gall to turn up four years later with the same coach and same tactics! Plus we like to boo the baddie.

The Czechs and French have yet to convince me while Sweden and Croatia's victories confirmed they will be tough nuts for any team to crack. Romania have yet to show what they are about, if anything while of the twin hosts, Switzerland could yet make it to the second round if results go their way.

After, Holland, Portugal and Spain, the fourth and last team in the A-League thus far is of course Germany, who looked a much improved and more confident team than two years ago.

That the Germans could be on the road to another final is demoralising on the one hand, but only to be expected on the other. There will be tougher tests than Poland ahead for Joachim Low's side, but there was an inescapable feeling during that game that we have been down this familiar road many times before.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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