When it was announced that Sven-Göran Eriksson was to leave his post as England manager after the 2006 World Cup Guus Hiddink was seen by many as the man to finally galvanise the so-called ‘golden generation’. England chose Steve McClaren, Russia chose Hiddink and we all know what happened next. Despite losing their opening game to Spain, Russia got back on track by defeating the defending champions Greece and, inspired by the return of Andrei Arshavin, cruised past Sweden in the decisive group D game to set up a mouth-watering tie with Holland in Basel on Saturday.
This will be the first time that Russia will have graced the latter stages of a major international tournament since the break up of the Soviet Union and the impact made by Arshavin should not be underestimated. While Russia showed patches of their quality against Spain and were the dominate side against Greece on both occasions they seemed to be one player short of a team who could have a genuine shot at winning the competition.
Playing just off Pavlychenko, scorer of the opening goal, Arshavin was a constant menace to the Swedish defence and his movement and awareness of his teammates was a joy to watch.It was his ball that started the move for Pavlychenko’s goal and he was on the end of Zhirkov’s pass to score Russia’s second. It will be interesting to see if he is allowed the same amount of time and space against Holland who have been fielding two defensive midfielders in Nigel De Jong and Orlando Engelaar.
Regular watchers of Europe’s club competitions will know that Russia’s appearance in the last eight is no fluke. The image of Russian football being based on big brutes is long gone, the Berezutskiy twins apart, and the slick passing and pace with which the Russians attacked tonight was as good as any seen so far in this tournament.
Sweden were outclassed tonight and with the oldest squad in the tournament it is time for a rethink. However the apparent lack of young talent coming through means that the majority of this side will be present when the World Cup qualifying campaign starts in the fall. Coach Lars Lagerbäck has been in charge since 2000 (sole charge since 2004) and must take some of the blame for the team’s poor showing. His defensive tactics have meant that arguably the countries most creative midfielder, Lyons Kim Källström, has been replaced by Anders Svensson and placing even more pressure on the brilliant but erratic Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
With Holland in imperious form the chances of Russia getting to the semi-finals is slim. But if anyone knows how to conquer the Dutch it is Hiddink and with Arshavin back pulling the strings anything could happen.