With comprehensive wins against the two world cup finalists, France and Italy, together with a fine victory by their reserve side against Romania, Holland had become many people’s favourites to win the tournament.
The style of football they have produced, particularly on the counter attack, has endeared them to nearly everyone who has watched them.
Russia started the tournament slowly but in their must win game against Sweden in the final group match they produced a performance of fast flowing football that made most observers sit up and take notice.
It was against that background that this particular quarter-final promised to be a classic. So the world sat down with great anticipation to watch the game. It did not disappoint but in truth, the Dutch did. Russia were the better team from the start and in Andrei Arshavin they may have the star of the tournament.
Holland couldn’t settle quickly but they had a great chance to take the lead when the usually clinical Van Nistelrooy somehow missed the ball completely three yards out from goal.
After that Russia took control of the game and the brilliant Arshavin and twice Denis Kolodin came close to giving them the lead.
In the second half Russia continued to impress and they did take the lead in the fifty sixth minute when Arshavin, who else?, cleverly played in Sergei Semak whose cross was expertly finished by Pavlyuchenko.
Holland did begin to pour forward after they went behind but Russia looked comfortable and on the counter attack they were taking Holland apart. It looked as though the Russians were heading for a famous and well deserved victory until three minutes from the end when Van Nistlerooy did what he does best and finished from close range from a Sneijder cross.
We then had a remarkable incident as the seconds ticked away towards extra-time. Russia defender Kolodin was given an unlikely and possibly ultimately match winning repreive by referee Michel.
Booked for the second time and then sent off for a foul on Sneijder, one of Michel’s assistants told him that the Real Madrid midfielder had not kept the ball in play, so Kolodin was allowed to stay on the pitch. It was a bizarre situation made even more so by the fact that the assistant looked as though he may have been wrong.
Russia took control of the extra-time period and could have taken the lead two or three times before the mercurial Arshavin danced down the left, sent over a tantalising cross and watched as Torbinski poked it home to put them ahead again.
Arshavin got the goal his truly world class display deserved when he put the game beyond the reach of the ragged looking Dutch side four minutes from time, running through and finishing low past Van der Saar.
This tournament continues to excite and surprise in equal measures. Holland did not ‘blow up’ as they have done in the past. They did not fall out with each other or fail to perform. They were simply beaten by a better side. Not just better but much better.
How many people had predicted that two of the semi-finalists would be Turkey and Russia?
If you did and placed a bet, could I borrow some money please!
Now we head to the final quarter-final between two of the pre tournament favourites. We have the exciting, young and in form Spanish against the dull, old and woefully out of form Italians. It’s obvious who will win isn’t it? Not in this tournament it isn’t. The Italians have been there and done it, several times. The Spanish have been and blown it several times.
After all the excitement and shocks, the great performances and the not so great (you know who you are France!) the wonderful individual displays and the players who have disappointed, it is still possible that we could end up with two of the games historical greats seeing off all the others. I still wouldn’t bet against a Germany and Italy final. We’ll see. We’ll know more after tonight.
Turkey have done incredibly well to get where they are but with being hit by suspensions it is difficult to see beyond a German victory in that game. The winners of tonights game will have to face the very impressive Russians and that one won’t be so easy to predict.
With my own England not being at the tournament, if I’m honest, I wasn’t sure whether I would enjoy watching the competition. In reality I have absolutely loved it. With the odd exception this tournament has been a great advert for European football. Tonight will be no different. I can’t wait!
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