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Euro 2008: Spain Take One Step Nearer

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Spain booked their place in Sunday’s Euro 2008 final with an impressive performance in Vienna Thursday evening. A categorical 3-0 victory over Russia left no doubt of the validity of their pre-tournament status as one of the favourites, just behind Germany in fact who they now meet in the last match. On the night they were dominant and turned in a master-class in crafted attacking football. Much has been made in these championships of their under-achievement in major tournaments, but with one match standing between them and the Henri Delaunay trophy, they surely must feel that at last the win is not beyond them.

A match that started cagily enough, an early second half goal, in the 50th minute from No. 8 Xavi, gave Spain the cushion they needed to play the game the way they like. And that they did. Until then it had looked like first blood could go either way. The Russians were not playing with the verve and penetration they showed in their quarter-final tie against the much praised Dutch. Yet it remained a tense affair. There was a nagging sense that Spain would become frustrated and Russia, having started slow were growing in confidence. The few chances there were, in a rather cautious first half, lacked finish and conviction from both teams. Twice Fernando Torres got on the end of a long ball forward only to hit it wide or into the hands of the waiting Igor Akinfeev. In the 33rd minute Pavluchenko tried a curling shot, that though it brought a stretching dive from Casillas was too wide of target.

It was the substitution of Cesc Fabregas for an injured David Villa in the 34th minute that began the switch in Spain’s favour. With more urgency in the midfield and Fabregas playing as striker alongside Torres, Spain started to find their way into the box and two or three times both Berezutsky and Zhirkov needed to be alert. But the goal in the 50th minute tipped the balance decisively. Xavi, starting the move, played the ball to Torres who pushed it wide to Iniesta. A clever cross saw Xavi continue his run, and with space, he made no mistake, putting the ball firmly between the legs of the Russian keeper. From there on in it was all Spain. They seemed to bloom and soon the one touch football, their passing and possession made the Russians look a fading side. In the 73rd minute, Guiza, on for Torres found himself on the end of a delicately chipped ball from Fabregas and all the Real Mallorca man had to do was chest down and lift over the helpless Akinfeev. Ten minutes later, a near 20-pass move, culminated with Fabregas on the left flank. He slotted a centimetre-perfect ball through to Silva, who collecting with ease, fired low and into the corner of the net. Russian body language said it all.

Russia were disappointing – Spain majestic. Against the Swedish and the Dutch, the Russians had promised much. On Thursday night they did not deliver. Against Sweden and Italy, the Spanish had not been completely convincing. But in Vienna they came up trumps and earned themselves a very worthy place in Sunday’s final. The only fear for such a talented and creative squad is that a shaky German eleven will physically play them off the ball and force a result with their height advantage on set-plays. For football that would be a shame. For this group of players it would be close to tragedy. Surely we should hope creativity wins over brawn on Sunday. We should hope Luis Aragones’ men lay to rest the ghosts of past failures and cap what has been to date a hugely entertaining tournament.

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