Spain daring to dream
Spain's 3-0 demolition of Russia in Thursday evening's UEFA EURO 2008 semi-final earned rave reviews all over Europe. Wise heads on young shoulders and boasting a dazzling array of skills, the fast-maturing Iberians are creating history with their eye-catching performances in Austria and Switzerland.
The names of the first-choice XI that has done so much to restore Spanish lustre are now burned into the national consciousness. Iker Casillas, Joan Capdevilla, Carlos Marchena, Carles Puyol, Sergio Ramos, David Silva, Marcos Senna, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Fernando Torres and David Villa are the men whose efforts are spurring a nation to dream of European glory once more.
Twenty-four years after their last appearance in the final, Spain qualified for the tournament's showpiece match in the finest possible style, producing a memorable second-half display against the Russians, quite possibly the best performance by the national side in years.
Supremely confident in their abilities and acutely aware of their goals, Luis Aragones's side have become increasingly comfortable with the possession football advocated by the coach. A further ingredient in their recent success is the confidence provided by a clutch of nerveless youngsters who, exposed to elite competition on a weekly basis with some of Europe's biggest clubs, seem blissfully immune to the failings of the past.
"We've been preparing for this for two years, and although we didn't start too well we are reaping the rewards now," said a delighted Casillas, albeit with a hint of disbelief in his voice. The goalkeeping captain was his usual focused self in a highly professional display in which he was only called into action twice in 90 minutes, making typically superb saves on both occasions.
The only blemish on the evening was the injury to striker David Villa, who will now miss the final against Germany. "I'd play on one leg if I could," said the in-form goal-getter. "But I've got 22 other team-mates who can do much better than me playing half-fit. So I'll just have to sit it out and enjoy the final from the sidelines, which is much more nerve-wracking than playing, that's for sure."
Ghosts of the past banished
Spain quickly recovered from Villa's injury blow. The introduction of Cesc Fabregas underlined the fact that in Aragones's squad no player is indispensable and that the second string are capable of maintaining the high standards set by the first. The Arsenal youngster showed that he and Xavi can play together and made light of Villa's absence with a dazzling display. It was his classy flick that set up Dani Guiza for the second and, with the red half of Vienna's Ernst Happel Stadium still celebrating, he expertly teed up David Silva for the third just minutes later.
"We came here to be champions and to make history, not just to break the curse of the quarter-finals," commented Cesc before the game. Having scored the decisive spot-kick against the Italians in the previous round, the first penalty he had taken since he was 15, the Arsenal midfielder revealed his big-match pedigree once more.
Yet again the generation of Iniesta, Cesc and Silva rose to the
occasion. Quietly yet relentlessly and showing no little
determination, they produced a second-half masterclass in quality,
possession football to show that this Spain side has the class to
go all the way.
"This is incredible, just amazing," said Iniesta. "To get this far is so exciting. The best is still to come, though, and we'll be going flat out to beat Germany."
Sunday's meeting with the Germans will be Spain's third European Championship final, their two previous appearances coming in 1964, when they beat the former Soviet Union 2-1, and in 1984, when they went down 2-0 to Michel Platini's France.
With two of the three goals coming from Xavi and Silva, the versatile Spanish midfield emphasised its effectiveness in front of goal and its value as a dangerous second line capable of scoring if the front men are having an off day.
As well as engineering a Plan B that is perhaps even more effective than Plan A, the other highlight of Thursday's semi-final was the commanding show put on by the Spanish defence, an area of concern before the tournament began. Fresh from snuffing out the aerial threat of Italy's Luca Toni, the central defensive duo of Puyol and Marchena neutered the virtuoso skills of Andrei Arshavin.
Also making a welcome return to form was buccaneering Real Madrid right-back Sergio Ramos, who was back to his powerful best in a balanced display that combined watchful defence with some incisive attacking runs.
The wise man takes a back seat
While the final whistle was greeted with jubilation by his players, coach Aragones turned and headed for the sanctuary of the dressing room, preferring to savour victory in solitude. "I'm not showing it but I'm tremendously happy inside," said the veteran tactician, looking as if he had just strolled in from a routine training session. "I'm delighted for Spain of course, but most of all I'm delighted for the players."
Shaking off the disappointment of defeat to France in the last 16 at Germany 2006, a faltering start to the EURO 2008 qualification phase and the controversy aroused by his decision not to select Raul, Aragones has shown he knows a thing or two about football. Quick to take the blows in defence of his players during difficult times, he has been equally quick to withdraw and let them take the praise now that success has come. Responding to praise for his part in Spain's run, he said, "I'm so, so happy about all this, but we're not going to find out who Luis Aragones is now after 40 years in the job."
The Wise Man of Hortaleza, as he is known in the Spanish footballing fraternity, deserves the accolades now coming his way. His achievements have been numerous. In steering Spain to the final he has fashioned a solid, highly effective unit, given it a philosophy and identity all of its own, restored its confidence and remained true to himself despite the barrage of criticism. Above all, however, he has reawakened the passion the Spanish people feel for their national team, a passion that had waned after Portugal 2004. Thursday evening's national viewing figures are proof of that, with an average audience of 13 million tuning for the showdown with Russia, an audience that peaked at 17 million.
In 2002 it was the Koreans who whipped up a red tide and now, six years on, the Spanish are generating one of their own in the streets of Madrid, Seville and Vienna. Whether that tide will be powerful enough to swallow up Germany remains to be seen. But come what may on Sunday, one thing is for sure - La Roja have rediscovered their belief.