Out go the holders, then, and one suspects that few people are going to miss them that much. Greece’s defeat by Russia yesterday evening was one of the more mediocre matches of the tournament so far, enlivened only by a horrific mistake by the Greek goalkeeper Antonis Nikopolidis allowed Konstantin Zyryanov to prod the ball over the line for the only goal of the match. The result was just as good for Russia. They haven’t got through the group stages of a major tournament since the collapse of the Soviet Union almost twenty years ago, but they have a chance to, now. A win against Sweden in their final group match will be enough to put them through to the next round. Sweden, meanwhile, pushed Spain all the way before falling to a late, late goal by David Villa yesterday evening.
The Spain vs Sweden was the better of last night’s two matches. Spain started the stronger of the two sides and took the lead after fifteen minutes when Fernando Torres scored from close range, but things took a turn for the worse for them ten minutes later, when they lost defender Carlos Puyol to injury. Without Puyol’s influence at the back, Spain’s defence began to look more more and more strained, and Sweden started to get back into the game. They brought things level ten minutes from half time, when Zlatan Ibrahimovich put the ball past Iker Casillas from close range. There was some criticism of Casillas on the television last night for failing to stop the shot, but it looked more from my angle as if the blame laid more with the defender that allowed him to get a shot in when he started with his back to goal. The second half was a slightly more disappointing affair, but right at the death David Villa latched on to Joan Capdevila’s long pass and, in spite of being surrounded by Swedish defenders managed to squeeze through and win it for Spain.
Next week, then, Russia will need to beat Sweden because Sweden have the better goal difference of the two teams. If Russia do manage to get through, it will be for the first time in twenty years, and the last time they did it they got to the finals of the European Championships. This might be a stretch too far for them this year, but it’s as good a chance as they’ve had since 1988.