1. To me, the Netherlands-Russia game was decided by the the Russians' domination in the midfield. I wish I could point to whatever tactical stratagem Guus Hiddink used to make this happen, but I can't. Everyone knew going into the tournament that the Dutch defense was weak, but they could succeed if they were properly screened by Nigel de Jong and Orlando Engelaar and if the Dutch maintained possession. Neither happened yesterday.
2. Andrei Arshavin reminds me a little of Messi in terms of his skills with the ball. He's not quite as fast, but I think his final pass is a little better. Messi has shown some terrific touches and shots before, but I don't remember him hitting anything quite so subtle as Arshavin's cross for the winning goal. Keep in mind that Arshavin is 27 and therefore in his prime, so whichever club pays through the nose for him is paying for his prime and then for the decline phase of his career. That club also won't know know how someone is going to respond when they've cashed in. All that said, the club that signs him is getting the best player in the tournament. The early signs indicate that Arshavin wants to play out the Messi comparison as a teammate.
Without revealing names, Arshavin claims to know of offers from England, but insists his dream is to play in La Liga. "I know that I have offers from England and Germany, but what I would really like is to play in the Spanish League, in the Primera Division," he told the Spanish newspaper AS. "It's the championship I've always followed, I like the football they play there. But, at the moment, I don't have any offers from Spain."
Those offers may soon arrive with Arshavin having been heavily linked to Barcelona following his starring role in Russia's 3-1 beating of Holland in Saturday's quarter-final. Those reports were sparked by comments from the Russian Football Federation president Vitaly Butko, who on Sunday claimed that the player has his heart set on a move to Camp Nou.
I must admit that the idea of Messi on the right and Arshavin on the left of a 4-3-3 is quite appealing. On a related note, I breathe oxygen.
3. In retrospect, Russia's success shouldn't be a surprise. The backbone of this team comes from the Zenit side that destroyed a good Bayern Munich side en route to winning the UEFA Cup. Zenit were the only side in the tournament that could break down Rangers' defensive wall. Russia has excellent players coached by the best international team coach around. Sorry old England ought to feel a smidge better knowing that it was knocked out in qualifying by two teams that are better than their names.
4. I'm not sure why, but my frustration with the Dutch focused on Robin van Persie yesterday. He was totally useless, culminating in knocking a free kick miles over from 20 yards when everyone assumed that Wesley Sneijder, a superior player, was going to shoot. Ernst Bouwes had exactly the same thoughts that I did watching the second half:
One scene in the quarter-final last Saturday night is enough to illustrate the difference between the start and the end of the tournament for the Dutch. In the 72nd minute Kolodin gives away a free-kick just outside his own box. Several cameras depict the concentration on the face of Wesley Sneijder as he waits for the referee to negotiate the Russian wall to the required distance.
The eyes of the world are on him, while commentators reminisce in their commentary box how the Real Madrid-ace has scored from a similar position in the qualifier against Bulgaria and so many times for his clubs. Curling the ball over the wall in the lower left corner of the goal is his trademark. The Russian keeper Akinfeev has already moved to the other side, which increases his chances. Like a high jumper Sneijder knows exactly from experience how many steps he has to take and at which speed to find the perfect mix between the tempo of the ball and the curve.
The referee blows his whistle. Sneijder's brain is sending commands to the muscles in his legs to start moving. In that fraction of a second the eyes of the former Ajax-player notice something strange. His team-mate Robin van Persie hacks the ball unceremoniously into the stand and returns to his position, somewhere undefined on the right flank, where he has created his own Bermuda Triangle for Dutch possession of the ball.
Sneijder is rooted on his spot, just outside the box, fuming, considering whether he can still catch the night train into Germany from the Basel Hauptbahnhof if he leaves the stadium immediately. It takes him more than a handful of seconds to regain his calm and amble into the already crowded midfield.
It is the preliminary episode of a frustrating night for the man who was about to become the star of the tournament, but would end the campaign shouting abuse to everyone around him, seemingly the last one of his team who cared. His team-mates had mostly faded away and resigned themselves to an early exit.
4a. Has there ever been an Arsenal player under Wenger who has lived up to his club reputation for his national team? I'm not sold on this theory, but it's kicking around in my head right now. I'm wondering if players don't look much better than they actually are when playing for Wenger because of his coaching acumen. By the same token, I ought to be wary about Barca signing Arshavin for big money after Hiddink made him look good, but the fact that Arshavin was so good for Zenit is comforting.
5. Tommy Smyth drove me crazy during the match. I seriously think he has poor eyesight. I've never seen someone look at so many replays and simply get them wrong. Andy Gray has exposed all of Smyth's shortcomings. You can see why the two of them don't get along when they're in the studio together.
6. It's sad to me that Edwin van der Sar went out with a ball being deflected between his legs. He played an outstanding game and will be missed by the Dutch. He covered for a lot of defensive shortcomings. Conversely, Igor Akinfeev is a liability for the Russians. Rafael van der Vaart repeatedly sent free kicks right into Russia's six-yard box and Akinfeev was just letting them pass through. The Dutch could have scored several goals from set pieces if their unmarked attackers could have gotten touches on the ball. If the Russians play Germany in the final, the Germans will kill the Russians with set pieces. Ballack and Klose will have a field day. And speaking of our friends in Deutchland...
6a. Isn't it typical that the Germans draw a battered and weakened Turkey side in the semifinal? Germany had an easy qualifying group, the easiest of the four groups then the 16-team draw was made, and now they play a side that won't have enough warm bodies to make its full three subs. Oh, and the Germans are playing right across their border in a pair of German-speaking countries. (Yes, I know that the Swiss speak a number of languages.) At the rate the tournament is going, Russia will beat Spain in the semis and then their team bus will fall in a ravine, leaving the Germans to be opposed in the final by the 1988 USSR side that lost the European Championship Final in Munich.
7. Even in defeat, it's a credit to Dutch football that they were beaten by one Dutch coach and a bunch of players who play at Zenit for a second Dutch coach.
Thoughts on the Good Result:
1. Anyone who thought that Spain were going to win in penalties, raise your hands. Spain haven't made a major semifinal in 24 years. The Spanish have a record in penalties that rivals that of England and Holland. They has been eliminated three times in penalties on June 22. (Incidentally, couldn't UEFA have finagled a way for Germany and Russia to meet in a quarterfinal on June 22? You should be warned that I will be out of control with the Eastern Front jokes if those two teams meet in the final. I was all ready to make a reference to Spain's blown opportunities on Sunday being not unlike the Armada failing to attack the English fleet as it was leaving Plymouth in 1588...and the Eastern Front is in my wheelhouse in a way that 16th century naval engagements never will be.) The Spanish hate the Italians for playing boring, defensive soccer and still getting results, so losing after a 0-0 draw in penalties would have been perfect for Spain. The Spanish also hate the Italians for being lucky, so losing after a shot squirted away from Gigi Buffon and nestled against the post would be poetic.
With all of that context going against them, Spain performed beautifully in penalties. It helps have Saint Iker in goal. I can't get myself to dislike this icon of Real Madrid. He's not annoying in any way and as a former (inept) keeper, I really appreciate the way that Casillas goes about his business. Andy Gray made an astute comparison between Casillas confidently claiming a cross in his area as opposed to the way that Akinfeev let balls ping around his box. Leave it to Gray to make a better observation about a game that Smyth actually called. Speaking of Gray...
2. I loved his attacks on Herbert Fandel. Once in a blue moon, Sir Alex Ferguson is right about something and his feelings about Fandel are spot on. He consistently missed fouls on the Spanish in or near the Italian penalty area. (You get the sense that Italy decided after a marginal penalty call went against them in the match against Romania that no ref would call anything against them in the box.) He also rewarded the Italians' play-acting whenever the Spanish broke for an attack.
3. I often defend Italian football as being unfairly criticized for being defensive and cynical, but the match on Sunday confirmed the stereotype. In contrast to Euro '04, this tournament has been karmically terrific in that all of the dour sides (Italy, France, Romania, and Greece) have been punished for their lack of imagination. Then again, how great can a tournament be if the Germans are going to win it?
4. Spain's attempts to beat down the Italians' wall reminded me of Barca's similarly unsuccessful attempts to beat down the wall that Manchester United put up in the two Champions League semifinals. Spain and Barca are similar in the respect that they play wonderful football based around short passes, but they don't have a Plan B when the opponent puts eight quality defenders between the ball and the goal. Spain needed to either present a credible threat of shooting from distance (and none of the Spanish players are really noted for that skill) or they needed to attack down the wings (and none of the Spanish players are noted as being great headers of the ball). None of the remaining sides in the tournament will set out the stall quite like the Italians did, so Spain should be able to do their thing going forward.
5. I demand that you acknowledge that Puyol played very well on Sunday!
6. Phil Ball's piece on the game is, as always, a must read. My favorite section:
The great thing about Sunday night's game is that the Spanish played it faithful to their own instincts about football, as did Italy to theirs. In the end, for a change, the gods of fortune got it right. When Senna's shot squirmed under Bufffon (just like Arconada's gaffe in 1984) the ball hit the post and nestled back into the keeper's arms. Luck, once again, seemed to be on the side of the pragmatists.
The referee was also doing his best to don a white shirt and officially proclaim himself Italy's 12th man. And as expected, Spain took possession of the game and tried to win it, whereas Italy made a few vague patterns in the centre of the field and tried to hoof the ball up to the awful Luca Toni, who looks even more awful when the service is poor.
Spain have now beaten the reigning European champions and the world champions in successive games, and looked miles better than either of them. At least they tried to play football. As the excellent football writer Santiago Segurola noted on Monday morning, Italy don't' even use the word 'football'. For them it's Calcio - 'something else' In a country so dedicated to the aesthetic as Italy is, football is something else for them - a war, a battle. As such, it doesn't matter how you do it. The beauty for them resides in the negativity, in the locking of the door.
But the Spanish are romantics, and prefer to indulge in beauty (or something approaching it) on the football pitch, given the relative messiness of their urban aesthetic. They would probably have imposed this philosophy before the penalty shoot-out if the appalling referee, Herbert Fandel, had possessed even the slightest notion of what constitutes a foul.
Seemingly obsessed by the notion that the Spanish are cheats, Fandel's assumption that the blatant fouls on Villa and Silva in the first half were anything but made no sense, particularly since if he really thought as much surely he should have booked both of them.
Spain were trying to win. It was Italy who were cheating - constantly interrupting the Spanish flow; whenever a player went down, he looked up carefully to see if an attack was forming, then rolled back over again to force the Spaniards to kick the ball out of play.
Surely, FIFA has the power and gumption to act on this sort of stuff? If a player recovers remarkably within 30 seconds of having required the play to stop, then surely he should be booked? It's not rocket science. The rule of kicking the ball out of play was only instituted in the 1990's to ensure that a player seriously injured could be attended to. Now it's just daft, and sides like Italy will always try to take advantage of the loophole.