And now there are four. Two weeks ago 16 teams began the final stages of the Euro 2008 Football championships after working there way through the qualifying stages. Two weeks of some very exciting and surprising football have reduced the field to Germany taking on Turkey and Spain taking on Russia to determine who will meet in the championship game on June 29th 2008. The way the tournament has been going to this point, I doubt anyone can offer an ironclad guarantee on who will advance to that final game in Vienna, let alone leave the pitch as champion.
Of the four teams, only Spain has followed the path predicted for them before the tournament. They handily defeated Russia, Sweden, and Greece in the preliminary round before being forced to engage in a penalty kick shootout to advance past the Italians in the quarterfinals. While Spain might not have looked as impressive in their match against the Italians as they did against, say, the Russians in the first round, the psychological impact of beating their old adversary, the first time in competition since the 1920s, can’t be underestimated.
In the modern era Spain has been the perennial underachiever, never living up to their pre-tournament hype and leaving their fans wondering what might have been. More often than not the team that has been responsible for breaking Spanish hearts have been the Italians. As host country for the World Cup in 1982 they were ahead of the Italians 2-0 before falling 3-2 in their quarter final match. That Italy stunned highly favoured Brazilian and German sides as well as the Spaniards on their way to their third World Cup victory, was probably of little consolation to the team or its fans.
So now they have finally broken the curse of the Azurri and will be facing the Russian team that they defeated 4-1 in the opening game of this tournament. They won’t be overconfident after their narrow win over Italy, but they will have the confidence that comes with winning the games they are supposed to win. Although Italy stifled their speedy forwards and quick counter attacks with a smothering defence, they should find more room on the pitch for manoeuvring against an equally fast paced Russian team that concentrates on offence as much as the Spanish do.
This is not the same Russian side that Spain beat so easily two weeks ago though, as they bounced back from their opening defeat to advance out of the round robin, and then ran a highly favoured Dutch team into the ground 3 – 1 in their quarter final match. Even though the game wasn’t decided until the second overtime period, the Russians’ constant attack mode clearly left the Dutch exhausted and only the excellence of their goalkeeper kept the score from mounting higher and allowed the game to extend into extra time.
While one player does not a team make, the return of their star Andrei Arshavin, after missing the first two games as a result of a suspension carried over from the qualifying round, has made Russia a far more dangerous squad then they were when Spain defeated them. He was a constant threat in the game against the Dutch, made a beautiful crossing pass to set up the winning goal, and scored the insurance goal that sealed Holland’s fate three minutes from the end of extra time.
After the Netherlands had beaten both Italy 3-0 and France 4-1 in the opening round, they rested eight starters for their final game against Romania and still won 2-0. Everyone considered them to the team to beat coming out of qualifying; they were poised, professional and elegant, and had looked positively unbeatable in destroying their opposition. Yet, against the Russian squad they looked old and tired as the young legs of Russia ran them into the ground. Indicative of their problems were how many penalties they took for late tackles or tackling from behind as they were continually left in Russian dust.
If Russia’s defeat of the Netherlands to gain a place in the final four is a surprise, Turkey’s presence in the other semi-final against Germany is astonishing. After losing their opening match 2-0 to Portugal, they then proceeded to break Swiss and Czech hearts by staging remarkable last minute come from behind wins of 2-1 and 3-2 respectively. If scoring the tying and winning goals in injury time against the Czechs to decide who advanced to the quarter finals wasn’t remarkable enough, the goal they scored against Croatia that sent their quarter final match to penalty kicks came just before the referee’s whistle blew to end extra time.
What makes Turkey’s run even more remarkable is the number of starting players they are missing due to injury or suspension. Now it seems like these absences are finally going to catch up to them. Aside from missing their starting goalie due to a two game suspension after committing a nasty, and unnecessary foul, in their match against the Czech Republic, seven other starters will be absent from the line up when the whistle blows to start their match against Germany. It really seems impossible for the German side to lose.
Yet Germany hasn’t exactly lived up to their billing as one of the pre-tournament favourites having lost to Croatia in the opening round and escaping with a fortunate 1-0 victory over Austria. They looked very impressive defeating Poland in their opening game, but if Austria had had anyone capable of putting the ball in the net, Germany may not have even made it out of the first round. However, in their quarter final match-up with Portugal they played a beautiful, inspired game against one of the pre-tournament favourites to win 3-2.
So the question is, which version of the German team will show up to play Turkey? On paper they shouldn’t have a problem with the horribly depleted Turkish side, but they should have been able to beat Croatia and handle Austria with ease. Yet, it’s almost impossible to believe that the squad that handled Portugal so easily will have any problems with Turkey, and that Germany won’t be one of the two teams playing in Vienna on the 29th of June. However, if there’s one squad that is playing the underdog role beautifully, and who you can’t help cheering for, it’s Turkey.
If I’m being honest though, I haven’t seen anything that the Turkish side has done that make it look like they will be able to get past a German side with so much potential. In fact none of the remaining teams look to have the all round team that the Germans have. While Russia will most likely get past Spain in their semi-final, Germany has to be the favourite to win the 2008 European Championship.
However, if there is one thing that Euro 2008 has proven, it’s that no result is assured until the referee blows the whistle for the final time and anything still can happen between now and the end of the match on Sunday June 29th.