The Gold Russia
Jon Holmes sticks up for Russia despite their Euro 2008 semi-final defeat, before picking out some of his best moments of the tournament.
Last Updated: 27/06/08 7:37pm
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Wales' only appearance at a major tournament, at the World Cup in Sweden where they lost 1-0 in the quarter-finals to a goal scored by some Brazilian bloke called Pele.
Whether or not you think current boss John Toshack is doing a good job (fifth place in their Euro 2008 qualifying group suggests it's been a struggle), you have to feel some sympathy for him. Toshack must now attempt to book a place at the 2010 World Cup via a group where only the winner is guaranteed a spot in South Africa, while the runner-up may not even make the UEFA zone play-offs. And who stands in his way in Group 4? European Championship finalists Germany for a start... and then there's Russia. Good luck John.
Interestingly, the other two semi-finalists - Spain and Turkey - have been thrown together in Group 5. Suddenly England's task of finishing above Croatia and Ukraine doesn't seem as taxing, although we had a similar attitude to such matters when Steve McClaren was in charge - and look where that left us.
Of course, Russia only just squeezed into Euro 2008 courtesy of England's ineptitude on the final night of qualifying. While we moped around for a week cursing McClaren and anyone else connected with the Three Lions, there were also bitter feelings toward Guus Hiddink's side. Hadn't we thoroughly beaten them at Wembley only two months before? Weren't we then mugged of a result in Moscow by a dodgy penalty decision? Didn't the Russians then lose in Israel? How were this lot going through instead of us?! They'd bring nothing to the Euros party, we harumphed. Boring, dull, grey Eastern Bloc football. Waste of a slot.
Then Zenit St Petersburg's UEFA Cup run made us sit up and take notice of the talent coming out of the Motherland so by the time the summer rolled around, we knew Andrei Arshavin was their star man - but that he was suspended for the first two games. Therefore, we still didn't fancy their chances. And after a 4-1 thrashing by Spain in Innsbruck on the first Tuesday, we were sure they would be heading back to Moscow the following week.
Forgive my generalisations; maybe you had more faith in the Russians, or in Hiddink himself. But after a narrow win over a dour Greece side, the manner of Russia's victories over Sweden and then Holland meant no one could now deny this was an exciting team - in terms of skill, physique and tactical nous. In defence, the powerful Denis Kolodin stood firm but would also rampage upfield and thump shots from long range; at left-back, Yuri Zhirkov dribbled menacingly down the flank before producing a killer pass, or he tested the keeper from set-pieces; Arshavin would conduct the orchestra from his advanced forward position with impeccable timing; while the movement of Roman Pavlyuchenko up front pulled defenders in all directions.
It was a privilege to see them in action against Sweden at the Tivoli Neu. From our lofty position in the corner of the stadium, my friends and I oversaw two crisp moves that produced goals for Pavlyuchenko and Arshavin, plus two more leading to shots which struck the woodwork. For their quarter-final with Holland, Arshavin simply tormented the Dutch and although the semi-final proved to be a bridge too far, Russia will now be feared on the world stage once again. Their world ranking - currently 24 - is certainly set to shoot up, and all the signs indicate that they will be seriously challenging for international honours in the future.
In their previous incarnation as the USSR, their only major success came in the inaugural 1960 European Championship, and their best World Cup finish came six years later in England when they lost in the semi-finals to Germany. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, the CIS and then Russia missed out on three summer tournaments and failed to get past the group stages in the other five. Those days of underachievement appear to be over - although Russia must ensure it continues to make progress.
Only one squad member (Nuremberg's Ivan Saenko) currently plays his club football outside of Russia, and with the country's Premier League awash with petrodollars, the likes of Zenit and the Moscow clubs - CSKA, Dynamo, Lokomotiv and Spartak - can stand up to the financial muscle of Europe's big clubs and keep hold of their top stars. The recent UEFA Cup successes of CSKA and Zenit might suggest that those players should stay in Russia, but hopefully the allure of playing in Spain, England and Italy will bring them to the better leagues and keep Russia on an upwardly mobile curve, whether Hiddink stays on as coach or not.
This is the penultimate Euro 2008 blog I'll be writing, with the final on Sunday almost upon us. As a result, I've selected my top 20 moments from what has been a classic tournament, full of wonderful goals, dodgy defending, moments of genius and calamity, and passion on and off the pitch. Let's start the rundown in a Top of the Pops style, from 20 to 11:
20. Bastian Schweinsteiger sweeps home Germany's opening goal in the quarter-final against Portugal in Basel, having made a storming run into the box before being picked out by Lukas Podolski's inch-perfect left-wing cross. This was the favourites at their very best - pace, power and precision.
19. Demy De Zeeuw swings over a high ball with his (misaligned) right leg, Robin van Persie latches onto it, shrugs off the challenge of Romania's Cosmin Contra and hammers a shot into the top corner. Holland underline their class in Group C.
18. The two European Championship newcomers, Austria and Poland, are doing battle in Vienna and it looks as if the Poles are going to take the points. However, a south Yorkshire policeman has other ideas. Howard Webb spots a shirt-tug in the area, decides it's worth a penalty and points to the spot. Austria stay alive, Poland goes ballistic.
17. The World Cup final rematch in Zurich has got off to a cagey start until Andrea Pirlo - the one Italian prepared to show some decent skill - drops a lofted pass into the box which Luca Toni just about controls. Stand-in centre-back Eric Abidal is snapping at his heels but gets too close, spelling disaster for his team. Red card, penalty and au revoir France.
16. Two thirds of the way through Greece v Sweden in Salzburg, and it's been truly dire. But then Zlatan Ibrahimovic jinks towards the box, plays a one-two with the old master Henrik Larsson, and guides a missile of a shot straight past Antonios Nikopolidis - all in the blink of an eye.
15. Spain are pressing against Italy in the last quarter-final in Vienna. It's not pretty. The Azzurri are refusing to budge, so Marcos Senna tries to mix things up a little and slams home a shot from the edge of the box. Gianluigi Buffon is down to the ball smartly, but then there's gasps from around the Ernst Happel - it's slipped under his body, and rolled against the face of the post! Two centimetres to the left and the tabloid back-pages would have all screamed 'Buffoon'...
14. Extra-time in Basel in quarter-final three, and Holland have five men retreating as Andrei Arshavin collects the ball on the left flank. Arshavin accelerates; the Dutch backpedal. Andre Ooijer, who until now was having a brilliant tournament, suddenly realises he's let Arshavin right into his own penalty area and can't risk tackling him. The quick-thinking Russian just stands up a looping cross to the back post, taking Edwin van der Sar out of the play and presenting an easy tap-in for Dmitri Torbinski. Oranje squashed.
13. It's end-to-end stuff at a saturated St-Jakob Park as co-hosts Switzerland do battle with Turkey. Servet Cetin and Volkan Demirel have just scrambled away another threatening Swiss attack, so Hamit Altintip hoofs the ball clear more in hope than expectation. It's claimed in midfield and Tuncay manages to spin and pass wide left to Arda Turan, who's in acres of space. The Switzerland defenders close in but Arda keeps his balance and unleashes a shot which flicks up off Patrick Muller's heel and into the net. Cue wild celebrations on the Turkish bench, and a punch-drunk expression on the face of Kobi Kuhn.
12. Another classic scene from the technical area. This time, it's our old friend Slaven Bilic who goes absolutely potty as Croatia take the lead against Germany in Klagenfurt. Danijel Pranjic curls an inviting cross in from the left and Darijo Srna gets there before the dozy Marcell Jansen to put the Croatians ahead. Bilic jumps up and down like a loon. Coming soon to a Premier League touchline (we hope)...
11. Nothing sets the nerves jangling quite like an international penalty shoot-out. When Italy grimly hang on in Vienna to force spot-kicks with Spain, it seems like choke time again for Luis Aragones' side. They've been the better side over 120 minutes, but that counts for nothing now. Will it be Buffon who makes the saves, or Casillas? We get through eight penalties and Casillas leads that particular contest 2-1, piling the pressure on Cesc Fabregas - who, lest we forget, has only recently turned 21. Cesc takes a big gulp... and Buffon dives the wrong way. What bottle!
I'll reveal my top 10 in my final column on Monday, along with my thoughts on Germany v Spain... who will be crowned champions of Europe? Can't wait!