Wednesday 18 June ~
In the end the conspiracy theories were just that. Last night's results mean Holland and Italy will play the qualifiers from Group D, which concludes tonight. The final round of group matches is an already-qualified Spain against an eliminated Greece while Russia play Sweden for second place. A second-string team worked well for the Dutch last night but if Spain play a reserve team and things don't go according to plan the old Spanish tournament insecurities may rise again. Meanwhile, we hope that Russia v Sweden is as gripping as the last head-to-head group decider, Turkey against the Czech Republic on Sunday. Both Spanish and Russian football have something to prove.
Spain's international record is one of consistent underachievement – the comparisons to England are overused but obvious. Since hosting and winning the European Championship in 1964 their only other notable achievement was reaching the Euro 84 final in France. Both in Spain and across Europe, however, many believe that things could be different this time. Luis Aragones' side showed uncharacteristic determination and patience to beat Sweden with a last-minute goal. Even before the match, a lot of money had been wagered on Spanish chances at Euro 2008. A supposed emotional fragility can be overplayed by the media, but Spain do have historical weight on their shoulders. They are expected to play a second-string side tonight, with increased Liverpool and Arsenal representation that will delight the English press. While they should still beat Greece, if a weakened side lose tonight, momentum will have been lost going into the knockout stage. Ominously Spain have never beaten Italy under tournament conditions.
Since their first game as a single entity (after a spell as the CIS following the break-up of the Soviet Union), a 2-0 victory over Mexico in August 1992, Russia have achieved very little on the international stage. Yet things are changing. The Russian league has been flooded with money – the big clubs receive huge sponsorship deals yet the league remains relatively competitive. This is starting to show at European club level, or at least in the UEFA Cup. Zenit St Petersburg's victory over Rangers in the final in May followed a UEFA Cup win for CSKA Moscow in 2005. There has bee a big influx of imports, something that even Vladimir Putin felt compelled to comment: "The amount of foreigners in our league suppresses young domestic talent." Yet in terms of the national team, like in England, virtually every player has remained in their national domestic league. Of their 23-man Euro 2008 squad only Nuremburg midfielder Ivan Saenko plays outside Russia. Just as in England, you suspect that the national team does not particularly benefit.
Andrei Arshavin, Zenit St Petersburg's UEFA Cup winning striker and the star of the Russian national team, will return to the side tonight after being suspended for the first two group games. This may have a significant effect – while Russia have the youngest squad in Euro 2008, tonight they'll play the tournament's oldest side. The foundations are there for a bright Russian future. But Sweden only need a draw to progress, so the story may yet pan out along familiar lines. As for Spain, we'll see on Sunday.