This wonderful Euro 2008 tournament has now, to add to all its other glories, become a hare-and-tortoise competition. Woe to those who sprint off at breakneck speed, then take a nap. The hares who won their groups – Portugal, Croatia and now Holland – have all seen the tortoises of Germany, Turkey and Russia recover from an early setback to reach the semi-final, where Italy will complete an unlikely quartet if Spain doze off at the wrong time today.
Having a wily old fox around helps, of course. Guus Hiddink, the coach the Football Association did not want, has furthered an already impressive reputation by reaching the last four of another major international tournament. He knew too much here for his fellow countryman Marco van Basten, scorer of a famous goal for Holland to help beat the USSR in the European Championship final 20 years ago, and hoping to become the first man to win the competition as both player and coach.
Van Basten surprisingly used all his substitutes by the 62nd minute in a game that always had the potential to run for 120. His team were in fact fortunate to extend proceedings that far. It was the 86th minute before Ruud van Nistelrooy equalised a fine goal by Roman Pavlyuchenko, who then struck the bar in extra-time. Eight minutes away from a penalty shoot-out, the substitute Dmitry Torbinsky effectively earned a semi-final, which he will miss through suspension along with the powerful defender Denis Kolodin. The magnificent Andrei Arshavin added a third for good measure and the Dutch hordes who had turned Basel orange went sadly into the night knowing they could have no real complaint.
Russia, with Arshavin at the heart of everything, reprised much of the sublime football they played in defeating Sweden last week. They had the better chances, and more of them, from the start, only a tendency to try walking the ball in and Edwin van der Sar's form in goal keeping his side in touch for so long, although he regularly had to berate his defenders for the lassitude many suspected was likely to betray them at some point. By the end, Russia in general and Arshavin in particular were taking them apart at will.
Van Basten, who is now returning to Ajax after four years in charge of the national team, admitted: "Russia were simply better than we were. They deserved the victory. Physically we should have been in much better shape after they played on Wednesday." Justifiably Hiddink was "extremely proud of my team", adding: "They were superior technically, tactically and physically."
The Dutch, it transpired, had peaked too soon, racing through the so-called group of death so full of life that after winning all three matches at Berne's Stade de Suisse they were presented with the centre spot in a glass case. There was even the luxury of resting nine players and still defeating Romania in the third game, all nine returning yesterday, though Arjen Robben was – again – unfit.
With Arshavin driving them on, the Russians were the brighter team from the start. There were three tremendous drives from at least 35 yards out by Kolodin, the best of which brought an anxious save from Van der Sar. The Manchester United goalkeeper also had to move smartly to his near post early on to keep out one of the many free-kicks his team unwisely conceded, often for mistreatment of Arshavin.
The clearest opportunity for the Russians before half-time, however, was the cross from Igor Semshov that Pavlyuchenko, England's nemesis with two goals in the crucial qualifying game in Moscow, headed over the bar when unchallenged.
Holland could only point to a succession of shots and crosses whipped across goal just eluding onrushing orange shirts, notably when Orlando Engelaar, the taller of the little-and-large defensive midfield partnership with Nigel de Jong, hit a fierce drive beyond the far post and when Van Nistelrooy, two yards out, was unable to make contact with Rafael van der Vaart's free-kick. Van Nistelrooy's smart turn and shot in the 36th minute gave Igor Akinfeyev his first save and a second, from Rafael van der Vaart, soon followed after the Russians carelessly conceded possession. Introducing Robin van Persie at half-time for the ineffective Dirk Kuyt was an obvious move and one that almost paid stunning dividends when the Arsenal player's first touch was a volley from Van der Vaart's pass that flew past a post.
But in the 56th minute Arshavin, at the heart of everything, fed Sergei Semak on the left and the Russian captain crossed at a perfect height for Pavlyuchenko to volley in with his left foot. It was a classic piece of redemption following his earlier miss. Only in the last 10 minutes of normal time did Holland threaten again and after Wesley Sneijder twice shot wide, he took a free-kick that brought undeserved reward. Van Nistelrooy threw himself forward to head his 33rd goal in 64 internationals.
There was an extraordinary incident just before the end of normal time when the referee Lubos Michel showed a second yellow card to Kolodin for a foul on Sneijder, then rescinded it because his assistant indicated the ball had already gone out of play. So the blond defender survived for extra-time, a period of end-to-end play in which the Dutch, having used all their substitutes, looked a tired team. Pavlyuchenko cut inside to hit the bar; Torbinsky should have scored after more superb work by Arshavin and finally did so in meeting the same player's cross with 112 minutes played.
There was even the bonus of a third goal, and how fitting that Arshavin should score it, running on to a long throw and shooting through the legs of Van der Sar.
How, Hiddink was asked, could a team playing this well have lost 3-0 at Wembley? "England had a very good day," he said. "Maybe their only one." Ouch.
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