Three times winners Germany and heavily fancied Spain will try to impose belated order on a tournament that has defied logic when they meet outsiders Turkey and Russia in the Euro 2008 semi-finals. After a quarter-final round that saw three of the four group winners eliminated along with world champions Italy, Germany look best placed to restore the traditional balance of power against escape artists Turkey in Basel on Wednesday.
Spain, who beat Italy on penalties on Sunday after a dour match finished goalless in 120 minutes, may have more problems in Vienna on Thursday against a Russia team who beat Netherlands with a thrilling extra-time display on Saturday.
After struggling a bit in the group phase Germany rediscovered their old ruthlessness to beat Portugal 3-2 in the quarter-finals, thanks to brilliant displays from Bastian Schweinsteiger and Michael Ballack. If they maintain that sort of form it is hard to see them being troubled by Turkey, who are down to just 13 outfield players after being ravaged by injuries and suspensions.
For most neutrals, this has been one of the most thrilling European Championships ever played. It’s been largely devoid of the dreadful officiating and cynical fouling that marred the 2006 World Cup, and most teams have chosen to play a straightforward, attacking style. This has made for some great, wide-open games and some unforgettable moments.
From the 100,000-strong Dutch contingent that turned Berne orange; to the downpour that nearly washed away Switzerland’s game against Turkey; to Gianluigi Buffon’s key penalty save against Romania’s Adrian Mutu; to Arjen Robben’s ‘response’ to France just thirty seconds after Thierry Henry had scored; to the tears of Andrei Arshavin as he walked off the field after Russia’s biggest win ever; this tournament will be remembered for a long time to come.
Here’s some of the highlights so far:
Holland’s sublime 3-0 demolition of Italy: The Dutch turned in a masterclass on June 9 in their Group C opener, showing the world that they not only had the talent and the panache, but that long-missing unity as well. Incredible performances from Wesley Sneijder and Andre Ooijer led the ‘Counterattack Orange’ over an Italian side utterly broken by the Dutch team’s quick one-touch passing. This match seemed to signal the second coming of a Dutch team that had spent twenty years trying to repeat the magic of Marco van Basten’s side in 1988. And they might have … had they not met the Russians.
Turkey’s quarterfinal win over Croatia: For 119 minutes, nothing happened, and they’ll be mercifully lost to time. But those final two minutes? No one will forget them. Croatia’s Ivan Klasnic seemed to have won the game when he capitalized on Rustu Recber’s goalkeeping howler with just one minute and stoppage left. But the game was not over: Semih Senturk latched onto a last-ditch free-kick from Recber and blasted the ball into Stipe Pletikosa’s net. The Turks went nuts, the game went to kicks, and the Croats were broken.
Russia’s quarterfinal win against Holland: Forget the extra time; this was a game that Russia dominated from the get-go. Led by the self-proclaimed ‘traitor’ Guus Hiddink, Russia’s 4-1-4-1 formation took away Holland’s passing game and pinned the Orange back, to face the onslaught of Arshavin and Roman Pavlyuchenko. Had the Russians not been so wasteful, they could have won 4-1 in regulation time. It was a breathtaking, convincing performance that left the Dutch wondering what they had to do to get a break.
Croatia beating Germany: The would-be champs were skunked 2-1 in a game that showed the dark horses were for real. Michael Ballack and his men were forced into a possession game while Croatia used their speed to unsettle a shaky back tandem of Christoph Metzelder and Marcell Jansen. Dario Srna had an outstanding afternoon, and Ivicia Olic scored a key goal to win the game late.
Austria: If there was ever an argument against having two nations get automatic byes, this year’s European Championship is it. Unfortunately, in six weeks, everyone will have forgotten about the fine job the Austrians did in virtually every other area of the tournament. Instead, Austria will be remembered as the worst-ever host team, an ignominious honor that is a sad reminder of how far Austrian soccer has fallen.
France: What a mess this team is. Strange decisions by coach Raymond Domenech conspired with a set of players too old (or too injured) to hack it and youngsters who looked shellshocked to condemn this team to defeat. The French haven’t looked good since 2006, of course, but French football in general is better than what this side showed us. It was hard to see it, but men like Samir Nasri, Jeremy Toulalan and Francois Clerc may still be the future for this side, as long as they didn’t lose their confidence completely in Zurich. On the other hand, it’s well past time for men like Thierry Henry, Lilian Thuram and Nicolas Anelka to make way. The French need a wholesale clean-out and a painful rebuild. Will the French public — who have become used to having a glorious side — persist through what could be a very difficult World Cup 2010 qualification cycle?
Italy: Very few teams have ever won the World Cup and then the subsequent European Championship, so it was probably a bit unfair to have such high hopes for the Azzurri. And, fans tend to forget that Italy went to Scotland needing a win to qualify for this tournament on the final day. But as this team has all the talent in the world, their flop here took many off guard. They are rightly being criticized for their lack of offense, but their key man, Luca Toni, never showed up. In truth, the mistake coach Roberto Donadoni can be blamed for was in not grooming a replacement for Fabio Cannavaro. Without his best player, who was sidelined before the kickoff, Donadoni’s team struggled to fill that void. Christian Panucci never looked comfortable, and when Andrea Pirlo and Genarro Gatusso had to sit out their critical match against Spain, the Italians lost their nerve and played scared.
Andrei Arshavin: The diminutive Russian playmaker has emerged as the player of the tournament despite having to miss the first two games due to suspension. His dominant form against Holland has already brought him offers from the likes of Arsenal and Valencia and more are sure to come. But the 27-year-old was not an unknown: he led Zenit St. Petersburg to this year’s UEFA Cup title. His performances have earned him some overheated comparisons to Pele’s 1958 debut, but one thing is for certain: he has to be contained by the opponent. He’s had a hand in every goal Russia’s scored since he took the field against Sweden.
Demirel Volkan: The Turkish ‘keeper is currently sitting out for one more game after taking a foolish red card at the end of Turkey’s game against the Czech Republic. That said, the Fenerbache man has emerged as one of the tournament’s best netminders. Comparisons with Gianluigi Buffon and Iker Casillas may be premature, but a lot of teams could use this sleek, quick-fingered netminder. Igor Akinfeev has also been a standout in the nets for Russia; will someone try to pry him from CSKA Moscow?
Ivicia Olic: The Hamburg forward looked out of gas against the Turks, but one wonders how much better he would have been with his partner, Eduardo Da Silva, running alongside him. As it was, he carried the Croatian side nearly single-handedly up top, scoring once and setting up several others. Mainly a poacher, his league form won’t be enough to tempt clubs, but he’s worth keeping an eye on.
David Villa: The Valencia forward has made a name for himself, leading all scorers with four goals, including a biggie against Sweden. It’s worth noting that he was silenced against Italy, but so far many will choose the man with the tournament’s only hat-trick as their player of the Euros.