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Russia Slain by Spain

Russian and Spanish fans scuffled in Vienna before game time. In Moscow, security was tight with an extra 4000 cops on the beat.  It was all for not as Russia went down 0-3 to Spain on Thursday, dashing the hopes of a nation. Will little Guus Evgenevich Gorodnikov look to change his name? Ger Clancy, aka The Irishman, explains why the Russians fell and why Russian football has a bright future.

After all the thrills, hype, endless column inches and rave reviews by the pundits, Russia’s Euro 2008 adventure came to an end tonight in a soaking wet Vienna. Tired, leaden-footed and without inspiration, Russia were thumped 3-0 by an excellent Spanish team who now look odds-on favourites to lift the trophy on Sunday night. Spain almost entirely dominated the match and were deserving winners. For the Russians the tournament is over. All that remains are their goodbyes to Austria-Switzerland and the journey home. But they can hold their heads high and be immensely proud of their achievements. For the first time since the birth of the modern Russian state in 1991 a Russian team has made an impact in what is by far the world’s most popular sport. Forget ice-hockey and the Olympics; only football will get everybody onto the streets. For football is closest to the Russian heart. Tonight those hearts were broken, but when their tears dry they’ll know their team has been a credit to the country and has put Russia back on the world football map. Tonight’s game was a bridge too far for their young and inexperienced team, but their football has lit up the championship and will be long remembered after Sunday’s final.

Russia began the game with Spain with just one change from the side that beat Holland, with Vasilli Berezutskii replacing the suspended Denis Kolodin. Spain inexplicably kept faith with David Silva and left Fabregas on the bench. This fact alone must have warmed Hiddink’s heart in the pre-match. Unfortunately that decision would be reversed very quickly and Russia would pay dearly for it.

The game started badly for the Russians with the Spanish entirely dominating the opening ten minutes. However Berezutskii held his own against Torres and eventually Zyrianov, Semak and Zhirkov began to win some ball in midfield and move it around at bit. However, this turned out to be the limit of Russian endeavour. Russia looked lead footed from very early on with Arshavin and Saenko making little or no forward runs as they had done in previous games. Indeed, the only Russian forward player who kept any pace with the Spaniards was Pavlyuchenko, who would plough a lone furrow all night. For the next twenty minutes Russia exchanged tit-for-at piecemeal attacks with the Spanish, but never looked like scoring or dominating.

On 33 minutes the defining act of the game occurred. David Villa went down with an injury and was replaced with Fabregas, Spain’s mercurial midfielder who bizarrely wasn’t picked from the start. From there on in the Spanish took control of the centre of the park. It was now just a case of ‘when’ and not ‘if’ for the Spaniards.

And the when duly came on 55 minutes when Xavi played a one-two with Senna to crack home a brilliant strike past Akinfeev. Russia were now totally out of the game.  The second blow arrived on 73 minutes when Guiza finished after an excellent through-ball from the dominant Fabregas. Fabregas then set up David Silva for the 3rd goal nine minutes later. The stats rarely lie –Russia, one shot on target, Spain had eleven. For Russia it was Goodnight Vienna.

There are many reasons for Russia’s defeat, and most of them will have merit in the argument. But the simple, most obvious fact and most compelling reason is that Russia are simply not as good as the Spaniards. After all the hype–which undoubtedly had an effect, especially on Arshavin, who played very poorly–Russia came up against a very skillful and highly experienced Spanish team, who, in spite of the best efforts of their incompetent, arrogant coach, are now on the cusp of greatness and a deserved European Championship trophy. Russia were also exhausted.  I hate to say I told you so, but Saturday’s match with Holland blew every spare effort Russia had.  There was just nothing left in the tank. Newspaper speculation about player transfers certainly was no help, nor were tales of children being named after coaches and players! For the young Russian team all this was new territory and they almost certainly buckled under pressure.

So, where to now for the Sbornaya Rossii? The great thing about football is that there’s always another game and another tournament around the corner, and the qualifiers for the World Cup begin in September. Hiddink will remain in charge, and though Russia won’t win it, we’re sure of another thrill-a-minute adventure in South Africa in Summer 08. To all Russia fans broken-hearted tonight – dry your tears and smile. Russia shall return!

Do Svidaniya, Rossiya!!

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