What makes the same team so different from one day to another? From slick passers to strangers in a park? From shorn of ideas to childlike expression? From the Russia against Holland to the Russia against Spain? From the Spain against Italy to the Spain against Russia?
The first twenty minutes were encouraging enough for both teams though. And it was a splendid game of football. All four fullbacks charging forward, the defence decent but not spectacular, all players getting involved and promises of a very open and attacking game.
Spain had looked the better team from the beginning but as it settled down they started taking control. Unlike the game against Italy, they managed this time to find Villa and Torres much more frequently and though there was nothing very dangerous for the keeper, there were nice touches, through balls, flicks and even shots. Ramos was spectacular in defence and in attack. Arshavin and Zhirkov could never get past him. Senna and Silva were impressive as usual. It was Xavi who was having a much better game than the Quarter Final though Iniesta still seemed out of sorts.
The Russians are no Italians and were not cutting off spaces as efficiently. It wasn’t a priority for them anyway because they had it in their minds to attack. But maybe they got a bit rattled by Spain’s early chances or maybe they came into this game with all the wrong things going through their heads. Either ways, their intent did not translate into execution. Too often they tried to create attacks by aiming for the heads of teammates (mostly Pavluchenko at that) while their best football had been about finding feet and men in empty spaces and about making themselves available.
At least Pavluchenko had a few good moments. Arshavin, almost the European creative hope whose reputation was getting bigger by the game, let the occasion get the better of him. The mid-field four were guilty of not getting the ball to him on enough occasions and he was guilty of not doing enough with it and when he did get the ball.
Villa’s injury was an intriguing moment. I fully expected Mr. ‘Like-for-like’ Aragones to bring on Guiza but on came Fabregas. Iniesta had been looking a bit out of place in the mid-filed till then and I thought that this could maybe make it more confusing for them. And Torres did not seem to be having the luck of the final touch. It will turn Russia’s way I thought.
How wrong I was. Not only was Fabregas breathtaking, but the extra man in mid-field effectively reduced Russia to spectators. With short passing options available, the Spanish strode forward in numbers and while Torres couldn’t produce a Liverpool display it didn’t matter. Xavi’s run, Iniesta’s pass and the finish by Xavi began a spell of supreme dominance. After that there was just one team in it.
And as if to show me my place even more, Aragones brought on Guiza for Torres and if it was possible for Spain to get any better they did. Russia meanwhile were just floating aimlessly. Pushing forward with hope but little belief and leaving huge spaces at the back. In the end 0-3 was merciful.
Russia join the Turks as beaten semi-finalists but how different their exits have been. One which built its reputation on spirit and bowed out with a display to remind us what they were made of. The other which wowed us with its skills and the hidden brilliance of its individuals but brought neither skill nor heart to what proved to be their final battle. I hoped they would score a consolation late goal just to say goodbye but it was not to be.
Guus Hiddink’s continues with his reputation intact if not enhanced but he was outscored in this round by Fatih Terim. But they are not to be forgotten, this Russian team. A lot of their players will be seen in Europe soon and we should monitor their qualifiers for 2010 closely.
And now to Spain and Aragones. I was never impressed with him finding him uninspiring and unimaginative but of course I was wrong. The ‘perennial failures’ have reached the final, on the way beating Italy on the anniversary of lost penalties. Some of it has to be down to this man. And a lot to that team. I’ll be cheering Spain in the final. They have given us this performance to remember and they should remember to perform like this...cometh the hour.