Wednesday, 18 June 2008
Day twelve of GroundReport’s exclusive on-the-ground coverage of Euro2008.
Lucky Guus has done it again.
Russia have defeated Sweden 2-0 to clinch a berth in the quarterfinals today. They play Holland in what will be a highly anticipated match for the manager, Guus Hiddink, who is of Dutch origin and coached the Dutch national team to a fourth place finish in the 1998 FIFA World Cup Finals in France.
The fixture also featured the return of Zenit St. Petersburg striker Andrei Arshavin for Russia, who had been suspended for the previous two matches of group play after being red-carded during their final qualifying match against Andorra.
Hiddink has never failed to move onto the knockout stage of a major tournament with a national team that he has managed so far – in addition to the Dutch in 1998, he led South Korea to the semifinals in 2002, and Australia to the Round of 16 in 2006, going down to eventual winners Italy in a last-minute penalty.
Russia’s victory today sets up a date with Group C winners Holland, who have yet to lose a match or concede a goal in the tournament.
Meanwhile, Spain move onto the knockout stage of the tournament with maximum points from group play, defeating Euro2004 champions Greece 2-1 in the other Group D match of the day. Spain, fielding a side of reserves having already clinched top-seed of the group in their previous match, went down just before halftime to an Angelos Charisteas header, but Ruben de la Red equalized for the Spaniards in the 61st minute, and Daniel Guiza sealed the victory in the 88th in an otherwise lackluster match.
The Russians on the contrary looked absolutely electric in their match, moving the ball patiently but efficiently with a glint in their eyes that they lacked in their previous two matches. In the 22nd minute, striker Roman Pavluchenko put his side up 1-0, tucking away a square ball from Arshavin after Aleksandr Aniukov tore down the right hand-side of the pitch to cross the ball into the penalty box.
Sweden, the oldest team in the tournament with an average age of 29 years and 85 days, looked static and unable to repel a hungry Russian onslaught early in the match. In the 26th minute, Diniyar Bilyaletdinov nearly doubled Russia’s lead exploiting yet another Swedish give-away in their own penalty box. Pavluchenko also had an opportunity to extend the score-line when he hit the cross-bar following another promising Russian buildup.
The Swedes to their credit came out much brighter in the second half, and the Russian defense looked somewhat disheveled, if not altogether vulnerable, but keeper Igor Akinfeev was never troubled, and, with the exception of an occasional look from Fredrik Ljunberg and Mikael Nilsson, remained a spectator throughout the match.
Then, in the 50th minute, Yuri Zhirkov capped a dazzling eighty-yard run past a flat-footed Swedish defense to square Andrei Arshavin and put Russia up 2-0, collecting what had originally began as a Swedish free-kick and racing down the middle of the pitch into the opposing penalty box before setting up his fellow striker. The Russians could have made it four or even five goals with a flurry of opportunities toward the end of the match, but for the most part looked solid defensively while the Swedes could not get themselves going or involve any of their key players to mount a credible comeback.
This is the first time Russia advance to the knockout stages of a major tournament since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992. The former USSR won the first Euro championship in 1960, and most recently reached the Finals against the Netherlands in 1988, when Marco Van Baasten, the current Dutch manager, capped a spectacular performance with a goal and an assist in the Dutch 2-0 victory over the Soviet Union.