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Can't Squish the Cock-a-Roaches

Boston won the championship, wheee. Looks like Hollinger is no dummy, as for the second straight year, the point differential winner holds up. I lost $20 on the Finals, so thanks a lot Lamar and Pau. Dammit, I despise Kevin Garnett and Matthew hates Ray Allen, so this was a bad day for us. At least we can still say that since ’03 if the Spurs aren’t winning the title, no Western Team is.

Games 3

Group C:

Italy 2, France 0

Really, did this surprise anyone? I’m telling you, they’re the cock-a-roaches. Italy always survives the group stages, regardless of how poor they look in any one given game. They just find a way to get it done against sides that are bigger, stronger, and faster; much like our Spurs.

For France it was one bad omen after another and really the game was over for them eight minutes in when Franck Ribery, their best player, injured his ankle badly after entangling with Gianluca Zambrotta and had to be replaced. Without him ze French were going to penetrate Italy’s defense on the dribble and would have to rely almost exclusively on crosses and low-percentage through balls. No Ribery, no Zinedine Zidane, no Patrick Vieira, who was supposed to be their playmaker?

As a consequence, Italy had the better of it from almost the opening whistle and would’ve had a quick lead if Luca Toni – who’s having a miserable tournament – had dribbled a ball at his feet a little further into the box instead of blasting a shot from way far out when he was completely unchallenged. It was ironic then that when he got his second chance, in the 25th minute, that France’s Eric Abidal chose to clumsily foul him from behind, drawing a red card for himself and a penalty kick for his team, instead of letting Toni botch it again as he almost surely would have. Roberto Donadoni wisely (and there’s two words we haven’t had occasion to link together before) chose Andrea Pirlo to take the spot kick instead of Toni and he blasted it in the upper left corner of the net to make it 1-0 for the Azzurri.

Daniele De Rossi almost made it 2-0 three minutes later, but he rocketed an open shot over the bar and Toni wasted two more opportunities in short order. The French looked like they were on their heels. When they did get the ball in attacking position guys shot it from wide out instead of trying to build something. The guy they brought in for Ribery, Samri Nasri, had to be subbed for himself 20 minutes later with Jean Alain Boumsong, whom the gamecast commentator described as “a toilet.” Then, right before half, Fabio Grosso had a shot carom off the post on a deflection. It looked all Italy.

In the second half though, Italy came out too relaxed and it was difficult to guess which team was playing with ten, with almost all the possession early and Thierry Henry and Karim Benzema getting three decent half-chances in the first five minutes. It took news of the Netherlands’ first goal against Romania for the Italians to get their heads back into the game and they got more adventurous after that.

The game was decided for good in the 62nd minute. Antonio Cassano, a surprise starter for Italy instead of Alessandro Del Piero, was fouled a wee bit outside of the box by Francois Clerc and De Rossi’s freekick took a fortuitous deflection of Henry’s foot and found the far side of the net, giving goalie Gregory Coupet (who looks like a cross between Barry Zito and Jm J. Bullock) no chance. From that point Gianluigi made one huge save on Benzema in the 74th minute to erase all thoughts of a Turkey-like comeback from French minds and Toni hit another post right near the end.

Give the French credit for not going down like surrender-monkeys but they just didn’t have the horses to compete in this tournament, particularly in the midfield. Vieira’s unavailability was really the deathblow for them. It might get worse for France before it gets better, and with Romania, Serbia, and Austria looming in their qualifying group, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they missed World Cup ’10. A new generation of stars will have to emerge but at the moment I don’t see anyone special up front or as a creator. As I said before, you can’t just replace a guy like Zidane. France doesn’t have the talent pipeline of say, Brazil. They had Michael Platini in the late 70s and early 80s, and Zidane came along a generation later, so really, their next stud should be expected around 2016 or so.

Italy meanwhile now draws Spain in the quarters and the Iberians have to be wondering what they did to deserve this. It says here that they shouldn’t be. While Spain certainly has questions in the back, they can’t be troubled by the slumping Toni. Also, both of Italy’s staring central midfielders, Pirlo and Gennaro Gattuso, will miss the game thanks to too many yellow cards. The former is their biggest threat on free kicks and the latter is the ball-winner and intimidator in the middle. The Spanish midfielders will have considerably more room to pass and run without Gattuso’s presence. I’m guessing The Cock-a-Roaches will look to rely almost exclusively on counters and might be perfectly content to get the game to pennos.

Netherlands 2, Romania 0

This one I didn’t get to see as much of, due to it being on simultaneously with Ita-Fra, but again the Dutch gave every indication that they’re quite serious about winning this competition, dominating this match from beginning to end with their “B” team. Every time I looked up they were threatening goal and the more desperate Romanians could hardly get anything going. It was as if they were confident that Italy and France would draw so they were content to sit back themselves, perhaps thinking that the Dutch were just going to go through the motions. When they found out that Italy scored in the 25th minute they got a little panicky, and just succeeded in opening the game up more for the Dutch. Their best forward, Adrian Mutu, the same guy who missed the penalty against Italy, had two chances within the first half hour and missed the net both times. Paul Codrea had a great opportunity in the 42nd, and he too missed over the bar. That was pretty much it for their first half offense.

Netherlands meanwhile had some epic near misses. In the 35th minute Klaas-Jan Huntelaar worked a great one-two with Arjen Robben in the box and Robben successfully rounded the Romanian keeper Bogdan Lobont, only to toe tap the ball wide of an open net from inside six yards. In the 48th, Robin Van Persie expertly turned a defender on his box, kind of like what Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic did to Spain’s Sergio Ramos, and Van Persie shot it to the same spot, low and to the far post, but Lobont made a great save to deny him.

Finally, the Dutch broke through in the 55th minute. Again Robben was streaking down the left, as he is wont to do, and finding nothing, he crossed the ball all the way to the other side to Ibrahim Afellay. Afelley struck a low cross to his near post a bit off target as it was just behind Orlando Engelaar, but the ball deflected behind him to a wide open Huntelaar on the other side of the goal for a simple tap in. I have serious doubts that Engelaar consciously thought to backheel a marvelous pass to his teammate, but if he did, then it’s the play of the tournament.

Not much happened after that for a good half hour and Romania never really threatened. Either Mutu was running off side or all their shots missed the net. The backup Dutch keeper Maarten Stelekenberg really wasn’t tested. Finally, they were put to bed for good in the 87th minute when Van Persie chested down a long cross from Demy De Zeeuw inside the box, fought off defender Cosmin Contra’s challenge, and blasted a shot over Lobont’s right shoulder to make it 2-0. He finished the display off with this queer little “Clockwork Orange” celebration and really I can’t decide if the whole sequence was top class football or arrogant disrespect for the opponents. Doesn’t really matter either way, I suppose.

Romania’s undoing, like most mediocre teams, was a lack of finishing, and scoring one goal in three games simply will not do at this level, even if the opponents were France, Italy, and Holland. Unfortunately for Mutu, his costly miss against Italy probably cost them a spot in the quarters. The team plays good defense, particularly Razvan Rat, but they have a considerable way to go become a factor in tournaments and I think them making World Cup ’10 is a bit of a longshot at this point.

The Dutch meanwhile will now face countryman Guus Hiddink and a young, speedy Russian side in the quarterfinals. Both squads have earned their bread on the counter but in this game somebody is going to have the ball and it’s a good bet the experience and technical excellence of the Oranje will help them have the lion’s share of the possession. You have to figure that their superior finishing, Russia’s suspect defense and possibly a bit of a “happy to be here” attitude from the underdogs will be enough to see the Dutch through, 3-1.

Group D:

Russia 2, Sweden 0

Now this was a bit of a surprise, but in retrospect it shouldn’t have been. The Russians are the club on the rise, young, speedy, vibrant, full of energy and excitement and belief. They had every reason in the world to feel confident, having finished ahead of mighty England in their qualifying group and beaten the Three Lions 2-1 in Russia, and earning a couple of 0-0 draws against group winners Croatia as well. The Swedes on the other hand are (this sounds familiar) old and slow, in such dire straits that they recalled Henrik Larsson, a 36 year old, to be their starting forward. Ibrahimovic is by far their most dynamic player, and he has a balky knee and a balkier temperament. The coaching gap between the two sides, meanwhile, was embarrassing.

From the opening whistle the Russians played like a team that needed to win and the Swedes played like one that was hoping to draw. As with the Romanians, once a goal flashed on the scoreboard, their best laid plans fell apart. Russia was boosted in a major way by the tournament debut of Andrei Arshavin, a diminutive, super-quick, rosy-cheeked sparkplug, who, with the #10 on his back, reminded me of a young Pavel Bure gliding down the ice for the Vancouver Canucks. Now Arshavin is no youngster at 27, and admittedly this was the first time I’ve ever seen him play, so maybe he’s not always like this. Maybe he had an extra jump in his legs after having been banned for the first two matches for drawing a red card against Andorra in Russia’s final qualification game. I don’t know and I don’t care. All I can say is he clearly was the difference here, always making runs with the ball, always taking defenders on, challenging them, putting pressure on goal. The Swedes had no answers for him.

In the 13th minute Aleksandr Anuikov crossed one to him and he missed an open header, but the chance was a sign of things to come, but for Arshavin and his team. In the 20th he had an effort from that looked like it was going to be a cross, but he almost caught Andreas Isaksson napping and the Swedish keeper had to clear the ball over the bar. Igor Semshov’s cross almost led to a goal by Yuri Zhirkov in the 21st.

In the 24th minute, Russia got their deserved goal. Down a break on the right side Konstantin Zurianov crossed the ball to Anuikov to Arshavin’s running mate up front, the ever dangerous Roman Pavluchenko (who looks like he could be Cameron Diaz’s twin brother) who torqued his body and shot it low to Isaksson’s right and into the corner of the net. Three slick right footed touches in the Swedish third and the ball was in the net. And a minute after that Diniyar Bilyaletdinov almost made it 2-0 from the seat of his pants!

Sweden was shell-shocked now and finally the gravity of their situation dawned on them – the Russians weren’t patsies. They got their best chance up to that point (and perhaps all points afterward as well) when old man Larsson finally latched onto the end of an Anders Svensson cross and flick headed it off the woodwork, leaving keeper Igor Akinfeev grateful. The footy gods didn’t play any favorites as in the 36th minute Pavluchenko’s effort on a loose ball in the box also found the bar. Both sides squeezed off a couple more decent shots after that, but they made it to half time still at 1-0.

In the second half though the Russians put the game away early with a break even faster and more jaw dropping than the first. Zhirkov won a ball in midfield and played it to Arshavin who worked it back to Bilyaletdinov on the left before both he and Zhirkov put their heads down and took off like BB pellets, screaming down the left corner of the pitch, where Bilyaletdinov one-touched a beautiful lob through-ball. Arshavin saw that Zhirkov was going to get to it first so the two of them kind of criss-crossed their runs, Zhirkov banking 45 degrees to the left, Arshavin 45 degrees to the right, inside the box. Zhirkov got to the ball, took a few steps with it, and crossed it with his left foot to the blazing Arshavin who put it in the low right corner while on the slide. Not only was it breathtaking to watch, the whole sequence of four passes involving three players covering over 60 yards took, at most, eight seconds.

The game was over after that and the only thing left to watch was Russia botch several agonizingly easy counterattacks (some of Pavluchenko’s misses were criminal) as Zurianov hit a post and missed another good chance and the forwards both did everything but score. Sweden, on the other hand, were either nodding headers right at Akinfeev or kicking balls nowhere near his vicinity. As the gamecast guy put it best, in the 77th minute, “Ibrahimovic’s free kick is woeful. Either he’s not fit or he’s just crap.”

Well I would lean strongly toward the former. Ibrahimovic proved himself in this tournament in the first two games and ended his international scoring drought. He played on a bad knee and gave it his all. At 26, he’s got two, maybe three major tournaments left in him and it would be a shame if the Swedish soccer federation wasted his great talent by surrounding him with so much mediocrity. The Swedes came in as the oldest team in the Euros and they need to rebuild around their talisman. And the recipe for that certainly doesn’t involve Larsson, a great player in his day but far too old and slow now to be playing at this level. That Ibrahimovic wanted Larsson to play alongside him rather than all the other available young talent in Sweden tells you all you need to know about both the pull he has on the team and their level of talent. Even more glaring than the need for a speedy finisher to complement their star forward is a central attacking midfielder who has the vision and the creative flair to get the ball to them in a manner besides long ball. In today’s game if you can’t counter you can’t win and Sweden were too slow to even attempt it.

For Russia, Hiddink gets to try to pull off another upset, facing the best team of the tournament thus far in the Netherlands, his old team and his home nation. The first goal will be critical and will determine the shape of the match, but I just can’t see the young Russians claiming it.

Spain 2, Greece 1

Spain made ten lineup changes, conceded the first goal right before half, and still won 2-1 against the Cup holders. So no, I don’t think they’ll be an easy out for the Azzurri. In a game I didn’t get to watch at all, Greece got on the board on – what else for them – an Angelos Charisteas header off a set piece. Giorgos Karagounis, easily their best player in these disappointing Euros, took a free kick on the left side in the 42nd minute and Charisteas beat two men on an inside run and met the ball in midair with his noggin and blasted it into the left side to make it 1-0 Greece. After scoring, in what I thought was a really classy gesture, Charisteas jogged out all the way back to celebrate with his captain and goalie, Antonis Nikopolidis, playing his final game for Greece.

Before the goal Spain had been having the better chances with Xabi Alonso just missing the goal on a pair of blasts (one from his own half) and Sergio Garcia’s low shot parried away by Nikopolidis. In the second half, after Charisteas missed a good chance to make it 2-0 for his side by knocking another header right at keeper Pepe Reina, they found the net not once but twice, but not before yet another Alonso rocket met the crossbar with a resounding thud. Finally, after an hour, enough was enough for the Iberians. Cesc Fabregas chipped a nice pass into the right corner of the box for his forward, Daniel Guiza to nod down to midfielder Ruben de la Red, who made a sneaky, unmarked run into the fray. This guy, who I’ve never heard of before, struck the ball so hard, I actually felt sorry for Nikopolis. I mean, the thing had a vapor trail. Red blasted the ball with his right foot and it ricocheted off the keeper’s left arm and into the roof of the net to tie the game up. That had to hurt. He could’ve killed somebody with that shot.

Just when a draw looked imminent, Spain sent the defending champions home without a point, with Garcia’s cross from the right finding Guiza all alone on the left side of the net after his marker, Traianos Dellas slipped. Guiza headed the ball over Nikopolidis’ outstretched arms but under the net and Spain entered the quarters with a perfect record. Waiting for them will be Italy, as I mentioned before, without their two central midfielders, so if Spain is ever going to beat them, this is the time.

On the surface it looks like an embarrassing, shameful, even pathetic tournament for the Greeks, but it’s important to have perspective. They already won this trophy once as a huge underdog. They’re on lifetime scholarship with their fans – or should be – from here on out. They’re not a world power for crying out loud, they’re a slow team that’s always lacked scoring, even in the best of times. I think they played way, way, way over their heads in ’04 and weren’t nearly as bad as the scores indicate in ’08. It’s worth remembering that they dominated qualifying for this tournament, going 10-1-1, albeit in a relatively weak group. Like Sweden the team is old and slow and need an injection of youth in the worst way. What will be interesting for me is to see how the team reacts to their showing here and how it affects their confidence in their World Cup qualifiers. Their group is pretty easy again, with just Switzerland and Israel as threats, but Greece will have to rediscover their identity.

3rd Games Starting XI

G: Artur Boruc; Poland – Again made several lunging saves and was top notch for the awful Poles.

LD: Alexsandr Anuikov; Russia – Assist on Pavluchenko’s game winner, shut down Sweden.

CD: Philippe Senderos; Switzerland – The hub in the back snuffing out Portugal’s second string.

CD: Servet Cetin; Turkey – Battled Jan Koller all game with a sore knee and nearly scored on a header.

RD: Hamit Altintop; Turkey – Three assists, but the damage was done in the midfield after a sub.

LM: Arda Turan; Turkey – His goal got the Turks back into the game.

CM: Tuncay Sanli; Turkey – Might have been their best player in the second half, constantly starting breaks, heading on goal, winning balls.

CM: Michael Ballack; Germany – Free kick scorcher sent the host Austrians home for the summer.

RM: Lubor Sionko; Czech Republic – He deserved better and was by far their best player.

LF: Nihat Kahveji; Turkey – Scoring the tying and winning goals in the 87th and 89th minutes kind of a big deal.

RF: Hakan Yakin; Switzerland – A brace for him as well, but very tempting to put Russia’s Arshavin here.

Group Stage Starting XI

G: Gianluigi Buffon; Italy – After a rough start, absolutely sensational the last two games when he had to be.

LD: Philipp Lahm; Germany – Without peer in the world, the little guy never fails to impress.

CD: Robert Kovac; Croatia – Helped shut down Germany in their 2-1 upset.

CD: Razvan Rat; Romania – Probably their breakout star of this tournament.

RD: Hamit Altintop; Turkey – Poor first game against Portugal, but sensational in the last two.

LM: Cristiano Ronaldo; Portugal – Had a hand in all five goals for his side and was a constant terror. Turkey’s Turan gave him a run for his money though.

CM: Wesley Sneijder; Netherlands – Only central midfielder with two goals.

CM: Deco; Portugal – No one else really stood out for the second spot.

RM: Lubor Sionko; Czech Republic – Edged Croatia’s Darijo Srna because he played more games.

LF: David Villa; Spain – Four goals, two game winners, in just two games played.

RF: Nihat Kahveci; Turkey – Can beat you passing (Switzerland) or shooting (Czech Republic).