Slowly but surely, Euro 2008 is coming to life. After last night’s contender for Match Of The Tournament between the Netherlands and Italy, tonight’s match between Russia and Sweden ran it fairly close. Against the wishes of anyone that wishes to steer clear of optimism surrounding the Spanish cause, it was a pretty outstanding start from Spain, whose expectation levels will have risen in the space of just two hours from “let’s get this over with and get on with La Liga” to “hang on, there’s a chance that we can actually win this”. Russia, it has to be said, didn’t play badly. They hit the post in the first half and were unfortunate to be two goals down at half-time. Ultimately, though, they paid for lax defending, in particular from Denis Kolodin, who failed to clear his lines for the first goal and was caught hopelessly out of position for the second.
The match started in weather that one could argue theoretically argue favoured the Russians. The two teams kicked off in the middle of a heavy downpour that looked through the television cameras as if it might even develop into a monsoon, and Russia matched Spain pretty well in the opening stages, with Shemshov heading right. Such undermining of the natural order of things, however, couldn’t be allowed to continue, and a couple of minutes later Torres caught the unfortunate Kolodin in possession, ran through and pulled the ball back for David “Linked With The Premier League” Villa of Valencia to open the scoring. With Spain looking more settled with the opening goal, Russia started to push forward more, and two minutes from half-time, and came achingly close to levelling things up when Roman Pavyluchenko’s shot came back off the post. One thing that teams at Euro 2008 are starting to learn is the need to get defenders that have strayed out of position back, and it was a lesson that Russia learnt the hard way. Two minutes after they’d nearly equalized, the ball was at the other pitch with Volodin about thirty yards off the pace, as Andres Iniesta freed Villa to double their lead.
With the match effectively over as a competition by half-time, the second half saw the pace slow as Spain sought to protect their lead and Russia ran out of ideas. The Russians started at a high tempo, with Bystrov heading straight at Castillas from a corner when he should arguably have done better, and Spain replaced Torres with Cesc Fabregas as they sought to slow the pace of the game. Villa, however, remained a constant threat up front, firing a low shot just wide before adding his hat-trick and Spain’s third goal with a run into the penalty area, a twist and a turn, and a low shot past Igor Akinfeyev fifteen minutes from time. From here on in, the match took on the feel of an exhibition match, but there was still time for two more goals. Pavlyuchenko pulled a goal back for Russia with five minutes to play with a header from a corner, but the three goal lead was restored a couple of minutes later when Villa passed for Xavi to shoot – his shot was parried by Akinfeyev, but the ball bounced up giving Cesc Fabregas plenty of time to head in a fourth Spanish goal.
The question that will be perplexing coaches that have to take on Spain in the rest of this competition is a simple but fiendishly complex one. How do they contain David Villa without opening up space that the likes of Fernando Torres can exploit? It’s a tricky question, and not one that has an easy answer. Villa’s performance this evening was the best individual performance of the tournament so far, and his three goals give him an outstanding chance of winning the Golden Boot award. It’s difficult to see how the aging Greek and Swedish defences will be able to cope with him, either. Yet for all the lavish praise that one can heap upon Spain’s attacking play (and this was every bit an impressive performance as the Dutch performance was last night), there are still question marks surrounding their defence. They did concede a comparatively soft goal tonight and will face better strikers than they did against Russia. They look to be a shoo-in to make the quarter-finals, but how much further they can go than that when they might have to face both the winners and the runners up of the GROUP OF DEATH to get to the final is still open to question.