The mastermind behind the Russian revolution during Euro 2008 is undoubtedly the incomparable Guus Hiddink. Hiddink’s track record speaks for itself. As a national coach of his home nation Holland he guided them to the semi-finals of World Cup 1998. Four years later he repeated the feat as home hysteria guided the somewhat fortunate South Korea to the last four of the 2002 World Cup. Hiddink is not a man to avoid a challenge and as part-time coach of Australia led them to the second round of the 2006 World Cup where they were denied in stoppage-time by Italy. This time around at Euro 2008 Hiddink was not going to be denied as his brilliant Russia team over-ran a hard-working Sweden team that rarely tested the uncertain Igor Akinfeev. Hiddink can owe the triumph in some part to the availability of the previously suspended Andrei Arshavin. Russia looked a completely different team from the opening two games with their main man, Arshavin playing in the hole just behind the excellent Roman Pavlyuchenko. The two players compliment each other with Arshavin having the ability to control a game and thread balls through to Pavlyuchenko who is a willing runner up front.
Despite Arshavin being suspended for two competitive games which would mean at the earliest he would only feature against Sweden in Russia’s final group game, Hiddink made the dubious decision of picking him in his final 23-man squad knowing that if the chance came along, Arshavin could provide the magic that would take them through to the next stage and so it inevitably proved. The self-belief injected into the Russians by Guus Hiddink with the return of Arshavin meant that perhaps they took a psychological edge into the game despite Sweden only needing a draw to progress whilst Russia had to claim the three points to advance to the quarter-finals. A team set up by the great Dutchman in this kind of situation was likely to be well-organised and attacking. The full-backs Aniukov and Zhirkov penetrated the Swedish defence on numerous occasions making forward darts to support the midfield and attack. Sergey Semak sat in front of the back four to allow Semshov and Zyryanov to collect through balls from the floating Arshavin and Sweden had no answer to the barrage of creativity. Daniel Andersson did his best to distrupt play in the centre of midfield but Arshavin in particular was too difficult to pick up so this allowed more opportunities to be constructed. In contrast to Russia’s eager full backs, Sweden’s Fredrik Stoor and Mikael Nilsson rarely ventured into the Russia half, concerned more with keeping it tight at the back. Elmander showed promise down the right hand side of midfield for Sweden but to no avail. From the look of both coaches starting line-ups, it was likely to be a compelling game with Hiddink looking to outwit his counterpart Lars Lagerback and pip Sweden to the final place in the quarter-finals.
The Russians started like a house on fire with Arshavin spraying balls around for Pavlyuchenko to chase. His vision already seemed to look a problem for the Swedes to overcome. If they could keep him quiet then they could control the game and feed the indifferent Ibrahimovic and willing Henrik Larsson. Within the first ten minutes Russia had set their stall out and were looking the more likely to break the deadlock with wave after wave of attacks. It seemed that only their own men would stop them scoring as the Russians queued up to find the net only to be denied by a colleague in the process-this happening in the 8th minute when Zyryanov and Aniukov got in each other’s when one seemed certain to put the ball past Isaksson. The Russians were building up a head of steam but Sweden’s wayward defending also contributed to the Russian dominance. Mikael Nilsson was twice casual with his short passes-first giving away the ball in a decent position on the half way line and then playing the ball out for a corner, much to the disgust of Isaksson. From the resulting corner Arshavin should have done better with a free header that flashed wide.
The shining light throughout the game for Sweden was the Toulouse striker Johan Elmander. His shot in the 20th minute provided Sweden with their only worthwhile chance of the match thus far but with the left-back Zhirkov often supporting attacks for Russia, Sweden were likely to get joy down the right hand side with Elmander perfectly capable of exploiting gaps in the Russia defence with his own shooting prowess or the opportunity to play balls through to Ibrahimovic and Larsson. However Ibrahimovic was not looking at his best and too many times his first touch let him down. He was not looking as enthusiastic as in the previous two games for Sweden when he was a constant threat. Without him in the second half of the Spain game they looked harmless but he looked a shadow of himself in the first half and was not having as much of an influence on the game as the Swedish would have hoped.
Russia’s pressure finally paid off in the 24th minute with inter-linking passes creating the space for Pavlyuchenko to slot the ball past Isaksson giving them a deserved lead. Sweden had to attack and almost had the perfect reply with Larsson’s predatory instincts finding enough space to head the ball onto the Russian crossbar with Akinfeev beaten. Hiddink knew that Sweden were still a dangerous threat. He urged his team forward to find a second significant goal. If Russia were to sit on their one goal advantage this could allow Sweden to hit them on the counter attack and salvage a draw which would take them through so it was in their best interests to try and find a second. Russia were looking relentless with more opportunities being spurned. First Pavlyuchenko hit the post then pulled a fine stop out of Isaksson at full stretch within a matter of seconds. Zhirkov then hit a volley inches wide of goal straight from a corner. Overall Russia were looking keener to close balls down and were showing more team ethic.
Sweden had two chances to grab an equaliser just before half-time to change the momentum of the game as they appeared to be in danger of being completly over-run by Hiddink’s men. The direct approach had not worked so far for the Swedes so they reverted to intricate passing and this almost broke down the Russians. Link-up between Ibrahimovic and Nilsson created Ljungberg with a chance to rattle Russia but his shot was handled well by Akinfeev. As with Zhirkov on the left for Russia, Anuikov was leaving space for Ljungberg and Nilsson to conjure a goal and after fortunate deflections the ball sat up nicely for Nilsson but Akinfeev once again thwarted the Swedish attack with a smart stop to his right. Russia had survived a late first half onslaught from Sweden and went in at the break 1-0 up but they knew that more opportunities would arise for them to seal their place in the quarter-finals.
The Russians continued their free reign of proceedings at the start of the second half. A clear indication of the amount of energy that Russia were using with purpose and endeavour to unsettle the Swedish defence was with the haphazardness at times of Olof Mellberg. Mellberg had looked commanding at the back in his country’s opening two games but looked shaky with the inventiveness of the Russian forward line. The first real mistake of the newly-signed Juventus man was to head the ball out of play for a corner without seemingly being under any pressure at all. The shape of the Swedish defence was becoming erratic and this led to further momentum for the Russians, eventually leading to the second goal although the creativeness of the build-up play between Zhirkov, the goalscorer Arshavin and Semshov left Lagerback’s men with no hope as Arshavin swept the ball past Isaksson. In fairness it could have been 3 or 4 by this point as Sweden had no reply to the Russian surge. Hiddink knew that he was close to once again conquering the group stages of a major tournament.
Lagerback’s retort to the second goal was to bring on Lyon’s playmaker Kim Kallstrom. The decision to pick Svensson ahead of Kallstrom in the starting line-up for all three of Sweden’s Euro 2008 games may have puzzled many followers of Le Championnat as Kallstrom has been brilliant for Lyon yet again this season and perhaps has a more resourceful style of play from both open play and dead ball situations than Svensson who himself is an excellent player but not in the same class as Kallstrom. Central defender Petter Hansson was thrown up field to add an extra dimension to Sweden’s attack as they searched in vain for a goal. They managed to squander two decent moves- Mellberg had a free header which was put over the bar and Ibrahimovic wasted a free-kick in a good position on the edge of the Russian box.
Now the centre-back Hansson was thrown upfield this gave Russia licence to attack. Arshavin was still tormenting the Swedes at the back and almost forced an own goal from Stoor after having looked to have been fouled by the young right-back when in on goal. Zyryanov also hit the post with a deflected shot with Isaksson beaten to almost certainly make it three. The usual combination of Pavlyuchenko and Arshavin almost broke down the Swedes again but Pavlyunchenko wasted two more great chances- a header and a rushed shot. Pavlyuchenko could be putting pressure on David Villa at the top of the Euro 2008 goal-scoring charts had he taken more of the chances that were afforded to him in any of his nation’s three group games.
Out-of favour striker Marcus Allback was given the last 10 minutes to try and rescue the game but his efforts along with the rest of the 4-man pronged attack were ineffective. Even at the final whistle Russia were intent on scoring more goals with despite them being the team ahead and going through, were reluctant to sit on their two goal advantage. The end tally of 22 shots to Russia told the story of their dominance but Sweden were unlucky to go out having played some neat football during the game. They had just come across a team that had hit form at the right time in the Russians. Hiddink’s reaction after the game suggested that there could be a lot more to come from the team before the tournament is over. “This is a huge win for a side still under construction with lots of young players and some experienced players,” he said. “It gives me real pleasure to work with them.
For many of the Swedish players such as Henrik Larsson who is unlikely to return to the national side for a fourth time, this will be their last major tournament. Lagerback’s reaction to their exit was of defiance “A new generation is coming through,” said Lagerback. “We had a number of younger players in this squad, but it’s about picking the best players regardless of their age. They will undoubtedly have to blood some new youngsters if they are going to succeed at the World Cup in South Africa in 2010 as they simply cannot survive playing the counter-attacking style that they showed during the tournament as nations such as Russia who play with real verve and energy will exploit them so the next qualification period will be a re-building exercise for Sweden.
Hiddink will now look forward to a clash against his home nation Holland in the quarter-finals on Saturday and on this form they can give the Dutch a real run for their money. Russia have still got a lot to offer Euro 2008 with the opportunity to surpass Hiddink’s other great achievements at major championships and win the tournament thus leaving Hiddink with a smile on his face at the very end.