Semi-Final Preview

24 06 2008

After a week of upset victories by the underdogs Mr President is going to look forward to the semi-finals and see if his predictive powers work a little better this time around.

It all started so well, too, as Germany, as he predicted they would, proved too strong for Portugal, but the Turks yet again defied the odds with a last-gasp equaliser against the Croats which shattered their confidence.

The much fancied dark horses subsequently crashed out on penalties but that wasn’t the real shock of the round. No, that honour belongs entirely to Russia, who not only knocked the favourites out, but outplayed them. Mr President had actually said that Russia might trouble the Dutch, and did mention the Oranje’s penchant for crumbling under the pressure but even he didn’t really believe that Hiddink’s side could win.

Of course he also picked Italy to win the tournament before it started and they’re now out so what does he know? The World Champions could have won the game had they approached it the right way, as Luca Toni had the beating of the Spanish defenders in the air throughout the match. Yet the Italians reverted to type, playing ultra-defensively, and on the rare occasions they attacked they didn’t really supply the crosses for Toni.

Given Donadoni himself missed a penalty in the 1990 World Cup semi-final you might think he wouldn’t have wanted to play for penalties but he clearly sent out his team to do just that. Aquilani, De Rossi and Perrotta, who all get forward for Roma, hardly did so at all against the Spanish. Perhaps he was trying to play on the fact that Spain have three times gone out of major tournaments on June 22nd but it was clearly a mistake.

This Spanish side seems to lack the mental frailty that has plagued other sides of the past and they showed this with their fighting comeback against the Greeks with a reserve side in a game that didn’t even matter. If further proof of it were needed it was delivered by Cesc Fabregas. The 21 year old, with all the pressure of the superstitious date and the expectations of a nation, never looked like missing the crucial penalty.

If Spain are to win the tournament that boy will play a big part, and should probably be playing 90 minutes rather than being an impact substitute. He immediately injected impetus into the Spanish in Extra Time, as he has done every time he’s come off the bench, and is by far their best midfielder. Crucially he has the mental toughness that’s needed to win the big tournaments, as shown by his comments about the Russians.

He’s right, too, the Spanish must be careful not to underestimate Hiddink’s side as Van Basten’s team clearly did. Arshavin is an excellent little player and will undoubtedly be playing for one of Europe’s biggest clubs next season. Pavlyuchenko is also a fantastic forward with remarkable natural talent and all the physical attributes he needs to succeed. If he can become more clinical in front of goal he’ll be one of Europe’s finest.

Still, the Spanish look too strong, and not only do they look a good bet to beat Russia but they look a great bet for the tournament. The talent has never been in question, but simply the mentality, and the victory over Italy demonstrated that they seem to finally have that part sorted out too. Meanwhile it looks likely to be an all-Adidas final as the Germans should be too mentally strong to crumble, even if the Turks stage another remarkable comeback. The Turks could also be without as many as ten players.

Hopefully this time the crystal ball is a little better than it was last…


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