For 120 minutes they fought one another to a standstill; then in 180 seconds they served up the most extraordinary rub-your-eyes-in-disbelief sequence of football that Euro 2008 has seen. By the end of the evening, Turkey had won on penalties after a collapse of nerve from Slaven Bilic’s team. There were blue shirts prostrate like fallen soldiers all over the pitch. The rest of us were left wondering if all this had really happened.
It started at the end, or rather it started at the end of 120 minutes when, with 70 seconds left of extra-time, Ivan Klasnic headed the goal that Croatia thought had won them a place against Germany in the semi-final of Euro 2008. On 122 minutes, past the allotted time added on, Semih Senturk scored the volley that rescued the match for Turkey; you could say that Turkey are in the semis because of Semih. They play Germany on Wednesday in Basel.
The drama, however, did not end there. Bilic had run half the length of the pitch when Klasnic scored, he for one did not expect that the Turks had it in them for a third astonishing late goal in this competition after those against Switzerland and the Czech Republic. In truth, Fatih Terim’s team had been far more negative, beset by injuries and suspensions they had done everything in their power to contain and curtail Croatia, but in the dying moments that did not matter when the ball dropped to Semturk in the box.
The conquerors of England in qualifying had the wind knocked out of them in a spectacular fashion. On the touchline, Bilic went wild, shouting into the face of the Spanish fourth official that the game had run over the extra two minutes that had been announced. At that point, with the Turks leaping all over Terim on the bench there was no doubt who had seized the initiative. Judging by the stunned faces of the Croats you would not have put a penny on them to win the penalty shoot-out.
And so it proved. The Croatian penalties were the work of a team who had just had everything they hoped for snatched away from them in the cruelest possible manner: three of their four penalty-takers missed, two of them, incluing Luka Modric, missing the target altogether. The Turks stepped up to the spot with the ease of a man walking the length of his own rose garden. Funny how football does this. But pretty much everyone in the stadium sensed when that Turkish equaliser went in that Croatia were not fated to win this game.
It was a terrible shame that Modric had to miss, putting his shot wide of the goalkeeper Rustu’s right post, because he had been the game’s outstanding talent. Yes, he had faded in the second half but on the ball he embodied Croatia’s ambition and their ability to pass the ball well. If only the Croatian striker Ivica Olic had taken one of the chances that came his way then Tottenham’s new midfielder would have got a second chance to humble Germany’s midfield.
And Turkey? Another collection of players who are barely known outside their own country have dragged themselves to another semi-final, they did the same at the 2002 World Cup. They are not the most ambitious when it comes to setting about their opposition and the best story was that of the goalkeeper Rustu Recber. The man who was once a day away from signing for Arsenal only played because of Volkan Demirel’s suspension. He was at fault for Klasnic’s goal but he saved Mladen Petric's penalty to win the tie for Turkey
Turkey will not light up the last four of Euro 2008 with their football but they cannot be written off until the final whistle has blown. Playing Germany will be of huge significance to the vast number of guest workers who have left Turkey over the last few generations to work in that country. Whether the Turks have it in them to beat Michael Ballack’s team is debatable on the majority of the evidence served up by this performance.
Bilic’s team looked sharper, they got behind the Turkish full-backs on either side of the pitch more than once and they created the best chances. Modric hit a cross that fell perfectly into the stride of Olic after 18 minutes, the Croatian striker was all of eight yards out but his shot cannoned off the bar and back out to Niko Krancjar who could not get his header on target.
That was virtually the best chance until Klasnic scored what he thought was the winner. Then, Modric was the quickest to recycle the ball on the right side of the box and with Rustu out of position, Klasnic headed into an empty net. And then more drama, the excellent Josip Simunic missed a header and Senturk pounced. His shot took a deflection off Robert Kovac and flew in. One final irony, Rustu won the game by saving a penalty from Petric – it was him who scored the winner at Wembley that prevented England from qualifying.
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