My cable guy shows a maximum of 2 sports channels at a time and to my horror neither of them was ESPN or Star Sports. After desperate unreturned calls to the cable guy, I was almost ready to call it a night when I saw Greece and Spain playing on good old Doordarshan. With only half an eye on that game, I stayed awake following the other game on the internet before to my relief, ESPN was on air by the end of the first half.
I remember Guus Hiddink’s PSV Eindhoven who had completely dominated AC Milan over two legs in a Champion's League semi-final but ended up losing. They were all about passing, movement and speed and this Russian team seems to play just like that. True the Spanish exposed their defence in the first game and it will be a worry for the Russians, but they themselves are equally capable of troubling defenders, getting into scoring positions and finding the net.
Sweden had their best moments of the tournament against Spain when they completely nullified the formidable Spanish mid-field and managed to use Ibrahimovic’s strength and presence to score. But that was essentially a performance aimed at getting a draw than forcing a win which was the need of the day. While players and strategy can be analyzed upside down, for me there was 1 moment that summed up Sweden’s problems.
Down by a goal and getting battered by the Russians, the Swedes suddenly had a great moment of hope. Ibrahimovic was fed the ball some 10 yards outside the box by Ljunberg and he did well to hold off a defender and play the ball back to Freddie. At that moment with Ljunberg in space Larrsson found himself clear on the other side of the box needing a pass from Ljunberg to get a clear run on goal. But by the time Ljunberg read the situation and had the ball in control, the moment had passed. Guess you have to see a replay to really understand what I mean but it was clear that the Swedish stars were clearly past their peak. At their best, you know they would have produced a champagne moment with the ball landing at Larsson’s feet and finding the back of the net.
Swedes like France, Greece and even Italy need a new team. They have some players who can go on, but the starting line-up needs to get rid of Mellberg, Larrsson, Ljunberg etc.
Back to Russia. Almost the entire squad plays club football in Russia (CSKA, Dynamo, Zenith and the skipper for Rubin Kazan – one of the best sounding club names in the world), and are well hidden from people like me who are largely stay informed through a very English focussed media. But I did see Zenith St. Petersburg towards the end of the UEFA Cup this year and CSKA in the same tournament a few years ago, and the quality is evident.`
I mean this team is not just a about Guus Hiddink getting the best out of ordinary players. Look at Zhirkov, Arshavin, Semak, Bilyaletdinov and Pavluchenko just to name a few. All capable of getting first team spots in top European clubs.
Next up for them is Holland. The high flying Dutch will be hot favourites and very importantly fresher than the Russians and any result but a Dutch victory will be a surprise. However, Russia can spring a surprise if they are able to do all of the following:
- Central defenders to stay deep. Let all the closing down and pressing be done by the midfield. Central defenders to focus on cutting off passes, intercepting crosses and going for and making last ditch tackles.
- Deploy a two man defensive midfield (Semak to stay deep along with Zyryanov). To push forward in turns. Main job to hassle the life out of Robben, de Jong, Kuyt etc. as soon as they get the ball. Also I think, this way they will be set up almost exactly as the Dutch and if they find it difficult to break down the Russian’s they may change their own formation and allow space to the Russians and leave their relatively vulnerable defence exposed.
- Pavluchenko and Arshavin to take chances as if each is their last. Cannot afford to be as profligate as yesterday because I don’t see them creating anywhere close to the number of chances they had yesterday