“It's like how much more black could this be? And the answer is none, none more black.” – Nigel Tufnel
Would it be a cop out to skip today’s post due to technical difficulties? Not that it’s ESPN’s fault, per se. The Worldwide Leader, against all odds, has done a commendable job covering Euro 2008 ... and then Wednesday afternoon the lights went out during the second half of a thoroughly engrossing semifinal between Germany and Turkey, which I’ve read the Germans won 3-2.
The only thing that kept me and millions worldwide from staring at their television like Tufnel at Sir Denis Eton-Hogg‘s approved all-black album cover for ‘Smell the Glove’ were some murky shots of the Fan Zone in Basel, Switzerland. Sadly, in the year 2008, we were reduced to guessing when a major sporting event was actually completed by gauging the reaction of people waving black, red and gold flags.
For a change, it paid to be inside the stadium press box, as opposed to a couch in my living room. Due to a thunderstorm in Vienna, the worldwide television feed was knocked out midway through the second half … and then again right before Miroslav Klose scored to put Germany ahead 2-1 … and one more time for a total of three just after Germany had gone ahead for good.
Thankfully, the feed returned in the 86th minute when Semih Şentürk yet again bailed out the Turks. We still had picture when Philipp Lahm (listed at 5-foot-7) rampaged through the Turkish defense and scored on a perfect through ball from Thomas Hitzlsperger in the 90th minute. (Not everyone was in the dark; a Swiss feed remained intact and was seen in Germany. Strangely enough, Al Jazeera’s coverage withstood the blackout, too.)
Since the ‘Heidi Game’ was a good decade before my birth, losing picture — and we couldn’t even get audio descriptions since Andy Gray and Derek Rae were inside the Bristol Broom closet — was a totally unpleasant and unexpected experience, especially when you’re supposed to write some analysis mixed with dick-jokes for the next day.
Imagine if, say, the 2006 Final Four game between George Mason and Florida conked out in the second half? In a lot of ways Turkey had a little of that George Mason magic with it, though the Patriots didn’t nearly have the last-second heroics like the Turks. Time will tell if the soccer community recalls Turkey’s run at the Euro the way CBS will likely remind us about the George Masons of the world every March.
Though the technical department in Vienna screwed the pooch Wednesday, ESPN picked the right tournament to starting airing the Euro free of charge to most of America. Mordecai ‘Three Finger’ Brown could count the boring/poor/listless games — Switzerland/Czech; France/Romania and Spain/Italy. That’s not a bad percentage out of 29 games played as of this morning.
It’s a shame in a tournament of ‘can you top this?’ that the best match to date left Americans watching Germans standing alongside the banks of the Rhine celebrating a narrow victory.
Wednesday’s heroes: Lahm, Germany. Ok, he did get taken apart by Sabri Sarıoğlu to allow Turkey to level it at 2-2, but the wee/tiny/pintsized/diminutive/Smurf-like outside back’s cross did set up Klose’s headed goal. On top of that, his run from nowhere faked Kazim Kazim out of his jock and let him sneak into the box unmarked in the 90th minute and rip a blinder into the top net past Rüştü Reçber. The most impressive part of the movement was the finish; how many top line strikers sky that attempt into the 24th row or shank it wide? All that was missing was Gray telling Lahm to take a bow. That could be cancelled out by all the scantily clad Fräuleins throwing themselves at his teeny feet.
Turkey’s entire team. Maybe the Turks ran out of gas. More impressive than coming back from 2-1 down with four minutes left, was how they came out attacking and had Germany hanging on by its fingernails. Shorthanded, Fatih Terim’s men threw caution into the wind from the opening whistle and showed that cynical, anti-soccer isn’t the only way to play. Turkey was unlucky to enter the half at 1-1 and could have easily been up by multiple goals, as Germany looked more confused than Dirk Nowitzki during his rookie season with the Dallas Mavericks.
Turkey, which was mainly an afterthought at the start of this tournament, earned worldwide respect — well, except from the Greeks, Kurds, Greek Cypriots and Armenians (forgetting anyone?). Wonder if Uğur Boral and the rest of his Fenerbache teammates can lead that club to another deep run in the Champions League in a couple months? It would seem far-fetched that Turkey can capture lightning in a bottle again for the 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign, but as long as Terim and his sweat-soaked shirts roam the touchline, the Turks can’t be counted out. (The strongman says he’s stepping down. Maybe the U.S. can hire him?)
Maybe it’s a good thing the telecast feed was spotty. The lasting image of the Turks shouldn’t be of them dejected and face down in the muck.
Who’s more rugged?: A seemingly standard mid-air collision between Simon Rolfes and Ayhan Akman in the first half triggered the tournament’s burliest moment. Rolfes was gushing blood from a gash above this left eyebrow, staining his jersey crimson in the process. Akman seemed okay, until the Turkish medal staff used what looked like a hole puncher to staple a head wound together. Rolfes stayed out for a while as he was stitched up on the sidelines. Consider these two the anti-Cristiano Ronaldos.
Were the hair curlers a little tight last night?: German keeper Jens Lehmann ought to consider purchasing Lahm some fine chocolates or the complete life works of David Hasselhoff, because the former Arsenal No. 1 was beyond abysmal Wednesday. On the first Turkey goal, slapped in by Boral, Lehmann looked more confused than “lionhearted” John Terry when he finished up a game for Chelsea in goal in the game Petr Cech fractured his skull. Already beaten, Lehmann had the gall to yell at his defense, though Arne Friedrich was just standing there watching Boral clean up the scramble in front of the net.
The second goal was tougher, and maybe Lehmann makes a save. Yet the guy bitches like a whiny little girl with a skinned knee, so he deserves the criticism. His howling performance outshined Michael Ballack’s no-show, as Herr Ballack allowed Mehmet Aurelio to completely mark him out of the match.
Andy Gray line of the day: “This tournament should come with a health warning for fans.”
Today’s game: Euro 2008 semifinal No. 2, Russia v. Spain, Ernst Happel Stadion, Vienna, Austria (2:30, ESPN2, the always thrilling LPGA Tour gets ESPN original today): Only 16 games ago these teams played in the Group D opener. A show of hands for those who thought Russia would still be around instead of say, the Netherlands, Italy or France after Spain’s 4-1 trouncing on June 10? Oh you in the back? You’re the one?
Head-to-head: Spain leads all time series vs. Russia 3-1-0 and 2-1-1 vs. the USSR.
Coaches: Guus Hiddink, master coach, master South Korean pizza endorser. Almost all the credit for Russia’s run to the semifinals is deservedly leveled at the 61-year-old Dutchman. On top of injecting the young Russian team with an attacking verve, he’s awoken a sleeping bear by getting the players to believe they can win it. If Hiddink navigates Russia into the final, his place in the pantheon of recent coaches is complete. (Now only if American fans can get prominent U.S. National Team fans Drew Carey and Rivers Cuomo to plunk down the money to meet Guus’ terms.)
Crotchety Luis Aragonés has Spain on the doorstep, now he better not louse it up before heading over to Fenebache after the tournament. Aragonés has stuck with a 4-4-2 formation, even if it means leaving a player like Cesc Fabregas on the bench to start games. Within the system, Aragonés hasn’t been sky with his substitutions, taking Xavi and Iniesta off a the same time against both Sweden and Italy. Now, replacing Fernando Torres with Dani Guiza? Let’s chalk that up to a senior moment. Far be it from me to question Aragonés legacy for Spanish football, but he’s been a manager since 1974 and the only trophies to his name of note is one La Liga title and four triumphs in the Copa Del Ray – the last in 1992.
Questions: How much of an impact will Andrei Arshavin make? … Did Russia peak vs. the Netherlands, or was it the start of something special? … Will Russia’s defense be able to make adjustments from the first match? … Can Spain possibly hit as many through passes as it did against Russia two weeks ago? … Can the Spanish midfield play a complete 90+ minutes? … Will Spain be able to cope with Russia taking the play to them? … Does Spain revert to it’s history and choke again? … Which teams adjustments pay dividends?
Key matchup: Arshavin vs. Sergio Ramos. Arshavin was a terror on the left against the Dutch. Ramos is billed as one of the world’s best at his right back position, but has thus far played a tournament to forget. Ramos, who loves to get forward, can’t get caught out and allow Arshavin to beat him or provide service for the rangy Roman Pavlyuchenko, who leads the tournament with 24 shots on goal.
Player to watch Russia: Sergei Semak. The Russian captain is the only player in the squad over the age of 30. His task today is to break up the inter-linking of the Spanish midfield to the Spanish forwards. Sounds pretty easy, right?
Player to watch Spain: Fernando Torres. Okay, he only has one goal to his name at the Euro and yes, David Villa tallied a hat trick vs. the Russians two weeks ago. Still, it’s Torres who has the match-winner in his boots today and the package of size and speed that will trouble the Russian back line.
Outlook: The major international soccer press never ceases to amaze me. More than any sport, one good or bad performance makes a team or player the best thing ever or the worst thing ever. (Yeah, I’m guilty too.)
Take Hiddink’s Russia. Two weeks ago when they were destructed 4-1 by Spain it was an afterthought to the tournament, while Spain vaulted to the favorites list. Fast forward to a captivating win over the Netherlands Saturday and Russia and Arshavin are the greatest thing since Metallica and Guns ‘N Roses played Moscow 20 years ago. There’s no doubt that Russia is quality, but all of a sudden they’re the best team in the tournament? That doesn’t seem right. Discount the group stage victory all you like, but Spain’s players are still better than the Russians. If the Russians come out and play an open game, it should allow plenty of room and lanes for the Spanish attackers to operate. Spain can taste glory for the first time since 1964 and should be in good shape as long as it doesn’t sleepwalk through this match like the Netherlands did on Saturday. This has the makings of a 100-mph thriller. Pray there aren’t any passing storms in Vienna. … Russia 1, Spain 2