What difference a star player and confidence can make in football! In their first match of Euro, Spain destroyed Russia 4-1 and it looked like the Russians were heading back to Moscow in a hurry. Now, Russia stands poised to reach a major final for the first time since 1988 (when they lost to Netherlands) having destroyed the high-flying Dutch and Sweden on their way.
Spain finally downed its black cat Italy after 1920. Will it finally be Spain’s year to win something at last? Will Guus Hiddink show again why he is one of the best coaches in the world, like he did with South Korea in World Cup 2002? Will Russia repeat the Zenit St Petersburg UEFA Cup win over Rangers and Bayern Munich this year?
Patience, new Spanish virtue
The Russian performance against Holland was remarkable because they attacked and looked quicker and faster than the Dutch who, till then, looked like the quickest and fastest. This had been a Hiddink trademark with Korea and you suspect that he can motivate and put his team in a superb condition.
However, the Dutch thought they would overrun the Russians. They couldn’t. The Spanish won’t make the same mistake. They will look to contain talented Andrei Arshavin and control the pace of the game.
I was impressed with the Spanish patience against the defensive tactics of Italy. In the past, the Spanish would have lost their heads and attacked. This time they picked their chances and protected themselves, content to dominate the game. There will be more evidence of this on Thursday.
Look for Hiddink to play the same formation he did against Holland. He has to replace Kolodin, the fullback, and can do that with Shirokov. Akinfeev will start in goal, possibly with Anyukov, Ignashevich, and the very tough Zhirkov at the back. Semak, Zyryanov, Semshov and top talent Saenko in midfield. Up front, top star Arshavin will play with blonde striker Pavlyuchenko. I rate Pavlyuchenko as one of the best strikers of this tournament.
Get Fabregas to start
Aragones will have to find a place to start Fabregas as he has been one of the best players of this tournament. Super couple David Villa and Fernando Torres lead the Spanish attack. Torres has not been happy being substituted but he gives his best and might break out in this game as he does with Liverpool. Villa has been divine and opportunistic in the front. In midfield, Andres Iniestsa, Xavi Hernandez and Fabregas will dominate play. Marcos Senna will play defensive midfield.
The Spanish backline is the toughest in the tournament with veteran Carles Puyol, Carlos Marchena in the middle, Sergio Ramos on the right and Joan Capdevila on the left.
Champions League vs UEFA Cup
Spain is favoured to win this game and you can see why. It’s Champions League vs UEFA Cup league level, and what a level! Spain has the mental toughness to advance to the final this year and possibly win against Germany (if they beat Turkey).
Russia has the speed and strength to go through as well if Arshavin has the kind of freedom he had against Holland. He won’t in this game as he will face the toughest defence.
In the end, I have to give Puyol and Marchena the advantage over strikers Arshavin and Pavlyuchenko. In the same way I give Torres and Villa the nod over Russian defenders Anyukov and Ignashevich. In the same way I see the midfield of Xavi and Fabregas dominating play. But it won’t be as easy as the first game, quite the contrary.