For a man who cannot even get into the Spain team, Cesc Fabregas is nevertheless doing a good job of winning Euro 2008 on his own. The Arsenal midfielder might not start matches but, as Russia found out last night, he knows exactly how to finish them off and it was his influence that guided Spain into the Euro 2008 final against Germany.
Like the maestro who taps the rostrum and leads the orchestra, it was Fabregas who gave form and shape to the great Spanish attacking ensemble in Vienna. Sure, Fabregas did not score the goals, and his business is not the spectacular, but he does make this brilliant, young team look the sum of their talented parts when it is him making the play. His reward? David Villa's thigh strain means that Fabregas has a chance of starting in the final on Sunday.
We should not be surprised given that he has wrought destruction on Milan this season at San Siro, and done just as much against Juventus and Real Madrid two years' earlier, but it is watching a player pick up the thread of a crucial game so quickly – and change it so dramatically – that thrills about Fabregas. There is no stage too big for this boy and they do not come much bigger than the first European Championship final for Spain for 24 years and only the second major final in their history.
From Fabregas the inspiration; from Xavi, then Daniel Guiza and David Silva the goals. Marcos Senna gave Spain the platform upon which to build in midfield and, propped up against the dugout, that strange creature Luis Aragones, unshaven and eccentric, must have believed that his greatest achievement awaits him in his 70th year. For Guus Hiddink it was a chastening experience and, like every great coach, he will have known that there was little he could do to stop this most spectacular of collapses from his team once it began.
As Spain scored three in the course of the second half, Russia, the late, great arrivals at this tournament, simply shrivelled and died. They have disappeared just as suddenly as they announced themselves as the unexpected entertainers of Euro 2008 against Sweden and the Netherlands. Following them is the reputation of their erstwhile brilliant playmaker Andrei Arshavin a little less burnished than it was 48 hours earlier. He looked a player who can turn it on once in a while but is not yet the man for the big occasion. At 27, he may never be.
What will the Barcelona executives who have pursued the new darling of European football with indecent haste since Saturday think now? Perhaps they will stop to reconsider when it comes to a Russian team who looked more like the side beaten 3-0 at Wembley in September than those who cuffed aside the Netherlands six days ago. Arshavin, Roman Pavlyuchenko and Konstantin Zyryanov did not become bad players overnight but they did look a good deal more average.
No England at Euro 2008 but Sunday will have the spice of one familiar Premier League encounter: Fabregas against Michael Ballack. Fernando Torres too, although the Liverpool man has not really hit his stride since Spain dispatched the Russians 4-1, and, for the second time in the knockout stages, he was substituted when the game was still in the balance. It happened in the Champions League semi-final second leg at Stamford Bridge too and you have to wonder if something is holding him back from lasting the distance.
On in Torres' place came Daniel Guiza – a diamond Guiza as it turned out – who chested down an exquisite flick from Fabregas to put Spain two goals ahead and end any faint hope that Russia had of seizing an equaliser. Guiza was the top goalscorer in La Liga last season which is some achievement even before you factor in that his team is Real Mallorca. But then that is the point about this Spanish team, who also used Xabi Alonso in the later stages: their substitutes' bench is a goldmine of talent that can be used to change games late on.
It thundered and then it poured in Vienna last night, the Spanish starting stronger before Russia edged back into the game in the middle of the half. Sergio Ramos was impressive at right-back, driving forward when he got the opportunity. Before the break Pavlyuchenko looked a threat, too. Arsène Wenger admires him for his unending willingness to run into space and drag defenders out of position but that is not all the Spartak Moscow man can do. He drew a brilliant, brush-of-the-fingertips save from Iker Casillas with a shot after 31 minutes.
Fabregas made his entry two minutes later for Villa, who had injured himself taking a free-kick. The Arsenal man's arrival meant there were five in midfield, among them him and David Silva supporting Torres and it overwhelmed the Russians. Four minutes into the new half Spain took the lead. The move began halfway inside the Russian half, Xavi knocked the ball left to his Barcelona team-mate and surged into the area. Ivan Saenko should have been tracking Xavi but he was drawn away to Iniesta and when Xavi arrived in the area he needed only to get a firm foot to the cross to beat Igor Akinfeev.
From there Russia never looked like they would mount a serious challenge. There was a final brilliant save by Casillas from substitute Dmitri Sychev in the 88th minute but by then Russia's disintegration had reached critical levels. Directed by Fabregas, Spain tore them apart.
With Torres off Fabregas had a shot tipped over before, on 73 minutes, he made Spain's second goal. His flick was weighted perfectly in flight and spin, and Guiza finished. Then the finale. Fabregas on the left wing, waiting and delaying for the moment the angle opened up for him to find Silva in the area. The Valencia striker had the ball delivered to him in that usual exacting style and with two touches he whisked it past Akinfeev. A grand ending and for European football's great underachievers one last act.
Russia (4-1-3-2): Akinfeev (CSKA Moscow); Anyukov (Zenit St Petersburg), Ignashevich (CSKA Moscow), V Berezutskiy (CSKA Moscow), Zhirkov (CSKA Moscow); Semak (Rubin Kazan); Saenko (Nuremberg), Semshov (Dynamo Moscow), Zyryanov (Zenit St Petersburg); Arshavin (Zenit St Petersburg), Pavlyuchenko (Spartak Moscow). Substitutes used: Bilyaletdinov (Lokomotiv Moscow) for Semshov, 56; Sychev (Lokomotiv Moscow) for Saenko, 57.
Spain (4-4-2): Casillas (Real Madrid); Ramos (Real Madrid), Marchena (Valencia), Puyol (Barcelona), Capdevila (Villarreal); Iniesta (Barcelona), Senna (Villarreal), Xavi (Barcelona), Silva (Valencia); Villa (Valencia), Torres (Liverpool). Substitutes used: Fabregas (Arsenal) for Villa, 34; Alonso (Liverpool) for Xavi, 69; Guiza (Mallorca) for Torres, 69.
Referee: F De Bleeckere (Belgium).
Booked: Russia Zhirkov, Bilyaletdinov.
Man of the match: Fabregas.