After four quarterfinal games of Euro Championships, I suddenly feel that, although I considered myself reasonably knowledgeable about the Beautiful Game for all my life, I have, in fact, very little understanding of it.
Or some aspects of it, at least.
There were stunning reversals of form, dumb coaching decisions, plenty of missed of opportunities, and of the four group winners – who all, as you recall, won their respective groups with a game to spare and rested their first teams in the last group round – only one managed not to lose in the quarterfinal. Three games went to extra time, two of those were decided by penalty kicks, and the one game that ended after 90 minutes was actually the most evenly contested.
The most convincing win belonged to – drum roll, please, – Russia. Don’t let the fact that it went to extra time confuse you – the Russians thoroughly outplayed the Dutch, which I found as delightful as unexpected. Holland had their chances to score, but Russia had several golden opportunities to put the Dutch away in regulation. If one can find something to harp about their impressive team performance, it is their realization of scoring chances.
And here is one thing that I do not understand. Russian central defense is their Achilles heel, ready to be exploited by a determined opponent. Holland’s best chances in the first half came from high crosses into the center of the box from free kicks. When Holland was fighting to extend its life at the end of regulation, down a goal, they started attacking through the middle, led by indefatigable Wesley Schnejder, and you could feel that they will get their equalizer. They did, with Ruud van Nistelrooy connecting on a high cross into the box from a free kick. Why they did not continue to attack in the same fashion is beyond me. Being thoroughly outplayed in every other aspect of the game, you have to exploit the one weak link that your opponent presents you with; the Dutch instead went back to their mostly toothless flank attack.
The Russians, on the other hand, shredded Holland defenses with precision passing, unceasing hustle and remarkable composure. Their field general, Andrei Arshavin, made a strong case for being the best player of the tournament, scoring a goal, engineering another, and generally appearing unstoppable. His absence due to suspension from the first two games of the tournament is very telling right now: It was during those two games that the Russians were thoroughly outplayed by Spain, and then defeated pitiful Greek team by a slim margin. Considering that the Dutch have so far been on the short list for the most impressive team in the tournament, Russia now seems capable of beating anyone.
They will have to face Spain in the semifinal again. The Spaniards ominously in the past crashed out of major tournaments in penalty shootouts three times on this same date, June 22nd. They managed to reverse the trend by besting the Italians in this cruel exercise. The game between the two great footballing nations was not very exciting and ended up goalless. There were several close shots by Spain, but the best chance for scoring belonged to Italy, when the Spanish goalie, Iker Casillas, managed to get back to his line and kick away the ball at the last possible moment. Italians, otherwise, continued their sad and unimaginative display on offense, and seemingly played for the penalty shootout all along. Spain played to win, but could not breach Italian defenses. There were two reasonable claims for Spain to be awarded a penalty in the first half, but other than that, most of their threats ended in shots fired barely wide. Their sublime duo of center-forwards, Fernando Torres and David Villa, distinguished themselves very little after exceptional displays earlier in the tournament.
Spanish head coach provided one of the most boneheaded decisions of the tournament, when he replaced one of his star strikers a few minutes from extra time with a rarely-used substitute. Admittedly, Torres was largely frustrated by the Italian defense, but he is one of the few players in the world who can change the course of the game with a single touch. His replacement, Dani Guiza, was clearly out of his depth at this level. He then managed to give the Italians their last ray of hope by striking the worst penalty in the shootout that was saved by the Italian goalie, Gianluigi Buffon.
Here is another thing that I find incomprehensible in modern football, though. Football is a low-scoring game, and refereeing mistakes tend to have disproportionate effect on the outcome of games. A referee is human, errare humanum est – I understand. But why, instead of concentrating on reducing the errors of the officials, the football governing bodies are more intent on having referees issue yellow cards for every single thing they deem inappropriate. Every major tournament these days has its outcome affected by the suspensions for players who received multiple yellow cards for trivial infractions (and occasionally, for refereeing mistakes as well). It used to be that the yellow card was reserved for one of three things: A dangerous foul, a clear pattern of continuous fouling or an egregious unsportsmanlike conduct. These days, a well-acted expression of pain can get someone booked for a slightest touch – it may still be a foul, but does it warrant a booking? And the number of cards issued for acts of frustration (short of attacking an opposing player) or mild dissent seem to be disproportional.
This tournament is certainly seeing its share of theatrical displays of being painfully brought down – a practice that was considered unmanly a generation ago. But, overall, the play has been rather fair. There has been little need for the referees to reach into their pockets. Yet, two key Italians were suspended for the Spanish game because they were yellow-carded for the second time in their last match; their offenses were less than serious; one of the two was their best playmaker, Andrea Pirlo, whose absence certainly figured in the Azzurri demise. In the game itself, the referee dispensed three yellow cards – none of them for a dangerous foul. One of them was to Villa for losing his balance in the box, falling to the ground and failing to get up quickly enough – the referee decided it was a case of “diving” from a player who admittedly frequently gets too theatrical…
The most egregious example is Turkey, who ran into a yellow-card-happy referee in their quarterfinal with Croatia, and can now barely scrape together a team for the semifinal on account of all suspensions (plus, a few unfortunate injuries). Most of the cards, in my view, were for offenses that barely warranted even a verbal warning from the referee.
That game also went to penalties, having been by far the most boring game of the round. The Croatians had one single golden opportunity to score, but the ball found the frame instead of the net. Other than that, there were short spells during which either team seemed to dominate, but without any real threat to either goal.
Croatia was a tad bit better on balance and seemed to finally win it, by scoring the opening goal two minutes from the end of the extra time. In the ensuing moments, some hectic kicking of the ball every which way ended with the Turks equalizing with literally the last touch of the game.
The penalty shootout highlighted another thing that I cannot understand. A well-placed penalty kick cannot be saved. It is just physically not possible for a human body to react and to move far enough in order to prevent a ball finding the corner of the net in the fraction of the second that it takes to arrive. More often than not, goalkeepers are trying to increase their chances by guessing the direction of the ball before it is struck and jumping that way. More often than not that results in a less-than-perfect kick finding the space vacated by the goalie. Wouldn’t it increase the odds to try to react to the ball instead of guessing? Only a proportion of the penalty kicks are ever struck perfectly. Why not accept that you cannot save those, but instead reduce a chance of a bad shot getting through?
In both shootouts that I witnessed, the goalie who tried guessing the most, lost. In Croatia – Turkey game, the slightly superior Croatian goalkeeper, Stipe Pletikosa, guessed every time, was right only once, and still could not save a single penalty. His otherwise error-prone Turkish counterpart, Recber Rustu, reacted to every single shot, and managed to save the last kick. He was well aided by two Croats missing the goal altogether, but he gave himself a fighting chance on every shot…
And, lo and behold, Turkey, which was in front of its opponents for a grand total of 3 minutes over the course of four games and which scored all of its goals in the closing moments of matches, is in the semifinals. Croatia, which aspires to be reckoned with as a major footballing power, is out after being able to claim that they played well in only one game – against their supposedly strongest opponent, Germany.
The Germans, who lost that game to Croatia, are the Turks’ next opponent and the likely favorites to win it all. Their quarterfinal against Portugal was an instant end-to-end classic, with plenty of exciting football produced by both teams. The Portuguese were certainly the most aesthetically-pleasing team in the tournament and played slightly better than the Germans. But they were undone by the same shortcoming that I believe plagues the Russians – inability to defend high crosses from standard situations. Only the Germans, unlike the Dutch, exploited that rather well and scored on two very similar headers. Portugal made valiant attempts to close the gap but ran out of time.
And there we have it. Germany should overcome depleted Turkey squad, even though the Turks keep redefining “resilience”. Spain has already emphatically defeated Russia in this tournament, but it is a different Russian team with Arshavin in the lineup, and the Russians’ Dutch head coach is a nonpareil tactician that will put lessons learned in the first game to a good use. The trajectories of the two teams’ form seem to be going in opposite direction as well. The bookmakers’ money may be on the Germany – Spain final, but there is a Russian hope for the first time in twenty years.
Can’t wait until Thursday!