An alarming trend is developing after one round of games at Euro 2008 — eight matches have been played so far, and only one of them has featured goals from both teams. Once a team takes the lead, they’re basically a sure bet to hold on and win, and that doesn’t make for compelling TV.
It was the David Villa show in Innsbruck this afternoon, as the Valencia striker bagged a hat trick in Spain’s 4-1 victory over Russia. Villa ran the Russian back line ragged all game long, making them, center back Denis Kolodin in particular, look simply dreadful.
Spanish coach Luis Aragonés opted to start the game with two strikers instead of a lone man up front as was the case in his team’s friendlies leading up to this tournament, and so Villa came into the lineup alongside Fernando Torres. The pairing worked to perfection in the 20th minute, when Torres picked Kolodin’s pocket at the corner of the 18-yard box, then slipped a square ball right into the path of Villa, who put it into the empty net.
The turning point of the game came almost immediately after Villa’s first goal. Russia had numbers forward and Dmitri Sychev sent a low cross skittering through the area. A Russian player had the first crack at it but didn’t move, and when the Spanish defenders failed to deal with the slow-moving ball, Konstantin Zyrianov picked it up. His one touch, right-footed effort smacked off the left post and was cleared away, leaving Russia inches short of an equalizer.
That failure to finish came back to bit Russia when Villa struck again right before halftime. A short Russian corner kick and poor cross right after it led to a counter-attack for Spain, and they made no mistake. Andrés Iniesta threaded a gorgeous ball through to Villa, who was even with the last Russian defender and may even have been offside literally by the length of his foot. Villa calmly slotted it through the legs of Russian goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, who had a very respectable game in defeat.
At that point, the game was effectively over. Spain bossed the second half after going up-and-down with Russia for the first 45 minutes. The Spanish midfield, especially Marcos Senna, controlled the tempo of the game and knocked the ball around all over the field, forcing the Russians to run themselves ragged by chasing. Guus Hiddink’s team eventually ran out of gas, and Villa completed his hat trick a quarter of an hour from time after another nice through ball sprung him one-on-one with Russian center back Roman Shirokov. Villa skinned Shirokov with a nice cutback move onto his right foot, then left Akinfeev guessing as he went to his left and Villa’s shot went to the former’s right.
A couple of garbage-time goals ended the game. Roman Pavlyuchenko picked up a consolation goal for Russia with a powerful header off a flick-on from a corner kick in the 86th minute. With Russia down 3-1, they had a chance to make things very interesting going into stoppage time when a poorly executed Spanish offside trap left Iker Casillas staring down the barrel of a wide open Russian player in the box. Casillas was able to smother the poor shot, which had been driven right into the arms of the Spanish captain. Cesc Fàbregas had entered the game in the 54th minute and was pretty quiet for the majority of the time he spent on the field, but his diving header off a rebound from a short-range volleyed effort by Xavi (set up nicely by Villa) accounted for the final margin in the 91st minute.
Russia clearly missed the creativity and inspiration of their best player, Andrei Arshavin, who was sitting out the first game of his two match suspension for a red card picked up in Russia’s last Euro qualifier against Andorra. Russia just wasn’t able to string any consistent possession together and even when they did manage to get something going, that last, cutting-edge ball required to really spring an attack just wasn’t there.
Spain exerted their dominance in midfield but showed that they have weaknesses in the center of their defense. Carles Puyol and Carlos Marchena are both susceptible to the bone-head, moronic play every now and then, and that showed today. They both needlessly gave away possession at times with poor passes and failed to clear dangerous loose balls in their defensive third. Pavlyuchenko didn’t have any support up front but still caused problems on his own. Teams that field two capable center forwards can give Spain trouble as Puyol and Marchena are there for the taking.
Reigning European champions Greece came out with five defenders (5-4-1) in their game against Sweden tonight, the first team in the tournament to do so. It’s no secret that Greece made their mark in 2004 by stifling the life out of their opposition, something they set out to do today as well. They have little desire to go forward and are content with passing the ball around the back, content to kill off the game if they can’t find a path of little resistance to goal or a chance to launch a counter-attack.
There are two problems with this philosophy and we saw them both in tonight’s match, won 2-0 by Sweden. A team like Greece can only survive for so long by playing in a shell and inviting pressure onto their defense. Greece was able to survive for 67 minutes before a moment of brilliance from Zlatan Ibrahimovi? opened the scoring. The Juventus striker played a nice little one-two with his front line partner, the ageless Henrik Larsson, and finished off the move by taking Larsson’s return pass first time and sending an absolute rocket shot from just outside the corner of the penalty area into the back of the net. Greece’s goalkeeper, Antonios Nikopolidis, did well just to get a slight touch on it with a glove but he had no chance to save Zlatan’s screaming right-footed drive. Sweden had been knocking on the door all game long with several good opportunities, and it was just a matter of time before they were able to ram it down and get a breakthrough.
The other problem with the way the Greeks play is that once they concede one goal, the floodgates usually open. Sweden’s Petter Hansson, who started alongside Olof Mellberg in the center back position, scored the scrappiest goal you’ll ever see five minutes later to make it 2-0, which was effectively game over with the anemic Greek attack. Nikopolidis came out very well to cut the angle down on Freddie Ljungberg, who was in alone 12 yards from goal. Ljungberg’s shot was saved, the rebound was popped high into the air by an off-balance Johan Elmander, who came into the game just a minute earlier for Ibrahimovi?. The ball eventually came down to Hansson in the 6-yard box. His header was blocked by one of two surrounding Greek defenders, came down to the ground, and was bundled home by Hansson despite those defenders’ best effort.
Sweden understood that the key to beating Greece was patience, and they exhibited that in this game. They refused to fall into their opponent’s trap by getting caught out and allowing a counter-attack, and they knew that they needed to unlock the back line and get a moment of magic to finish it off. The same Greek defenders that had previously gone 425 minutes without conceding a goal in the European Championships are now four years older than they were when that streak started, something that coach Lars Lagerbäck obviously tried to stress to his team. He had his team make Greece’s older group of players chase the ball and work to earn their point. In doing so, they grew tired as the game went on and let their guard down.
I was very impressed with the way Sweden played tonight. They’ll need to repeat that performance (and probably even better it) in their next game as it’ll be against Spain, who looked dominant earlier over Russia. A point there for Sweden and they’ll be sitting pretty heading into the third and final group match against Russia. However, a loss to Spain and the Russia-Sweden match becomes winner-takes-all as Russia will beat Greece and go into their third game with three points, equal with Sweden if they don’t get anything in four days’ time. Remember, the first tie-breaker in this tournament is head-to-head results, not goal differential.
Group D Standings (after one game):
1. Spain (3 points, +3 goal differential)
2. Sweden (3 pts, +2)
3. Greece (0 pts, -2)
4. Russia (0 pts, -3)
Group A — Portugal, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, and Turkey (in that order in the standings) is back in action tomorrow, with the top two teams and the bottom two playing against each other. A win for either Portugal or the Czechs would likely see that nation through to the quarterfinals, and the loser of Switzerland-Turkey is as good as eliminated. I’d expect to see Switzerland, backed by their boisterous home crowd, win and stay alive to fight another day, and Portugal to also get a victory over the very uninspiring Czech Republic.