After a certain, indefinable point, failure becomes a default option. Like the South Korean team who, for so long seemed capable of doing everything but winning a match in the World Cup finals, so it was with Russia. Would they ever get past the group stages of a major tournament again? The answer to that, finally, is yes, and they managed it some style this evening with a win against Sweden that was the best performance that I can remember having seen from either a Russian or Soviet team. The first half of the match was almost embarrassingly one-sided. Having brought in Andrei Arshavin into the team after he missed the first two matches due to suspension, they looked a transformed team and, whilst it’s probably fair to say that Sweden took about fifteen or twenty minutes to even turn up, this was a performance that will at least give the Netherlands pause for thought before their meeting with them in the quarter-finals on Saturday.
Where, then, has it gone wrong for Sweden? Most people blelieved that they would get through this group with Spain, but it turns out to have been a tournament too far for many of their older players. Henrik Larsson may have shown profound irritation when he was reminded of this in a post-match interview by ITV last night, but the fact of the matter is that, at 36 six years old, he (and the majority of his team mates) didn’t have the legs to keep up with the Russians. This combined age, coupled with the fact that the Russian league season is only a few weeks old, was enough to knock them out. When Russia went a goal up last night through Roman Pavlyuchenko after a wonderful, sweeping move that carried the ball from one end of the pitch to the other, it looked as if the sky might fall in on Sweden completely and, although Russia failed to capitalise on the chances that they created, it was still difficult to see a way back into the game for Sweden.
The second goal, coming as it did five minutes into the second half, effectively killed the game as a contest and simultaneously emphasised what a difference Andrei Arshavin makes to their team. The Zenit St Petersburg midfielder rolled the ball in after another excellent run down the left hand side by Zhirkov. Freshness, here, was the key. Sweden looked tired and all out of ideas, like England at the last World Cup, but without the well-organised defence to give them a chance of sneaking them the clean sheet that would give them a chance of qualification. Even at 2-0, Russia had the majority of the possession, with Sweden only occasionally testing the Russian defence. In the end, it was a comfortable victory for them.
In the other match in Group D, Spain beat Greece 2-1 after the Greeks had taken a surprise first half need – or was it, considering the number of changes that Aragones made to the Spanish team? The Greeks, then, return home with one goal and no points to show for their defence of the tournament. Not many people will miss them.