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Friday, 13 June 2008

Euro 2008: Russia sunk by Villa hat-trick

Russia's first effort in the European championship was a complete flop. In the match against Spain, Gus Hiddink's charges showed some fairly bold play before the break, but four times were caught in a counter-attack and lost (1:4). Our team's "gravedigger" was centre forward David Villa, who scored the first hat-trick of the championship.

It was as if four years had not passed. The same June heat, the same fire-breathing asphalt on the approach roads to the stadium. And once again Russia v Spain in the first Euro match for our team. Only then it was Faro, Portugal on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, while this time it was the Alpine city of Innsbruck. The white, blue, and red sea of Russian fans this time exceeded the 10,000 of 2004. Though this time UEFA had allocated them only 6,000 tickets per match in the group phase of the tournament.

What were they counting on, the one-half of our compatriots who came to Austria without any guarantee of getting into the stadium? Some of them reserved places in the bars of Innsbruck and Salzburg, resigning themselves from the outset to watching the match on the big screen. But many were prepared to pay any money just to support the team from the stands of the Tivoli-Neu arena. It was they who became the hunted targets of enterprising Austrians who were prepared to cede to them their coveted tickets. Not, of course, for free.

Surely the touts aren't already asking a thousand Euros a ticket?!", a fan wearing a Zenit [St. Petersburg football team] shirt asked Izvestiya's correspondent. I could console him only partly - on the day before touts wandered into the tiny resort of Leogang demanding "only" 400-500 Euros a ticket. However, judging by my interlocutor's wild eyes, it would scarcely have been possible to frighten him with any price. One way or another, when the teams came out onto the field, even a fleeting glance at the stands was sufficient to understand that the Russian fans in Tirol were not outnumbered by the Spanish contingent.

But 90 minuties before the match a thunderstorm broke out over Innsbruck, and almost at the same time the rain gushed down in torrents. Passions in the covered stands did not cool. On the other hand, the simulation of the circumstances with the Portugal sourroundings, where the same rivals had to play in fatiguing heat. Our team has changed out of recognition in the intervening four years. Among the players in yesterday's term only Dmitriy Sychev took part in the match in Faro, spending only 22 minutes on the field.

Our team's starting line-up was by and large put together by Gus Hiddink literally within the past three weeks. It was given its dress rehearsal was in the 2-1 victory over Serbia. Compared with that game, there were just two changes to Russia's team. The injured Pogrebnayk's place in the attack was taken by the "resurrected" Pavlyuchenko, while on the right wing Bystrov was replaced by the aforementioned Sychev.

The Russian grandstands had also prepared thoroughly for the game. During the performance of the national anthem, alongside portraits of the current team members appeared photographs of the national heroes who won the first European cup in 1960. For several minutes before the Austrian ref Konrad Plautz blew his whistle, a veritable landing party disembarked at Tivoli-Neu. A khaki-coloured helicopter landed in the grassplot near the main stand, from which emerged Moscow Mayor Yuriy Luzhkov and his wife Yelena Barturina into the VIP stand.

The game had scarcely begun when our players had the Spanish sections of the crowd whistling in dissatisfaction. Our technical rivals for a long time could not get to the ball, so well did Huudink's charges control it. But the Spaniards did not need to manoeuvre much to open their account. The super-duo of Spanish forwards Torres and Villa scored a goal on the first counter-attack. Torres outmanoeuvred Kolodin, one of the central pillars of our rehashed defence, while Villa turned home his perfect pass.

No, our team didn't even think of giving up. Under the banner in the stands, "We need a goal!!!', it continued to besiege Casillas's goal-line. Before the break there was also Zyryanov's strike that hit the post, a dangerous free-kick earned by Zhirkov and taken by Pavlyuchenko, but... Yet another counter-attack by the Spanish caught the Russian team's defence by surprise. Iniesta wove a delicate pass between Anykov and Kolodin, and with a single touch Villa completed the double—0:2.

Thus the first half left an ambiguous impression. On the one hand, the Russian team gave not even a hint of being resigned to their fate or playing for a draw at most. On the other hand, in the first 45 minutes of yesterday's game the Spaniards scored twice as many goals against us as in the first 90 minutes in the previous European Championship.

After the break the game continued along roughly the same lines, the one difference being that the Russians' mistakes in defence were even cruder. And the Spanish did not fail to take advantage of them twice more; Pavlyuchenko managed only to score a consolation goal.

Translated from Izvestiya, 12th June, 2008

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