We had very high hopes for this match, didn’t we? When pressed, this was going to be the classic of the two matches. The match that would repeated in slow motion with a light opera and indie rock soundtrack. As it turned out, though, Russia vs Spain was a comparatively one-sided match, won convincingly by Spain against a Russian team that really failed to turn up at all. Andrei Arshavin, who had given indications that he was starting to believe the hype with his somewhat ridiculous claims that he had always been a Barcelona fan, was the most notable absence on the night, with this performance (or lack thereof) raising questions about his ability when under the spotlight, regardless of how sensationally he transformed the Russia team when he returned from suspension. Meanwhile, in a display of an ill wind blowing someone quite a lot of good, it was the enforced replacement of David Villa with Cesc Fabregas that really transformed Spain. Fabregas has looked very impressive every time he has made one of his cameo appearances for Spain, and the likelihood now has to be that he will start the final.
Things might, however, have been different. After a cagey start that saw a couple of comfortable saves from Akinfeev and a couple of long shots from Russia, Pavlyuchenko fired a shot from the edge of the penalty area which whistled just wide of the post. It took a couple of viewings of the replay to establish that, in fact, Iker Casillas had made a magnificent save with his fingertips, a save so deft that only the slowest of slow motion replays could pick it up. The breakthrough, when it came, had an element of fortune about it. Iniesta’s cross-cum-shot from the edge of the penalty area was diverted in by Xavi but, while Iniesta would doubtlessly now protest otherwise, I am still less than convinced that his involvement in the move was a cleverly played pass to an unmarked striker. I suspect that it was actually a very tame shot that Xavi cleverly managed to anticipate and intercept. The replacement of Fernando Torres with Guiza proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back for Russia, for whom this was really a match too far. Four minutes after Guiza’s introduction, he scored the second goal to put the match beyond them once and for all – a neat passing move that cut through the Russian defence like a hot knife through butter and finished with him lifting the ball over Akinfeev to kill the game as a competition.
At 2-0, the game slowed to a jog as Spain eased up, but they still had time to add a third goal with eight minutes to play. Cesc Fabregas, whose introduction to the team had completely opened up the Russian defence slid the ball across for Marios Silva to drive the ball in for a third goal. Quite what happened to Russia is a mystery. Maybe the exertions of extra time against the Netherlands last weekend had got to them. Maybe, for the first time, they had started to believe the hype about themselves and had managed to persuade themselves that all they need to do was turn up in order to win against Spain. They had a shock in store. Luis Aragones had clearly watch the video of the Russia vs Netherlands match over and over again, and was determined not to make the same mistakes that the Dutch had. They didn’t cede any ground in the middle of the pitch, didn’t give away possession easily and kept up a high tempo, pressurising Russia into making quite a few quite basic mistakes. Spain, however, should try and keep their focus. One of the more striking things about this tournament is that teams have often followed magnificent performances with very bad ones. It happened to Portugal, it happened to the Netherlands and it has now happened to Russia. If there’s one thing that has been regularly punished at Euro 2008, it has been complacency.