Maybe Steve McClaren deserves some sympathy after all. And not just for his floundering as a radio summariser. Russia produced a sensational performance last night to join Croatia in the last eight of the European Championships. Both were in England's group for the qualification campaign which cost McClaren his job. But then maybe he, like many others, was guilty of simply underestimating such opponents.
The Russians were brilliantly orchestrated by their returning hero Andrei Arshavin who was free of suspension having missed the first two group games. He didn't regain the captaincy but led his country with verve and skill. The man from Zenit St Petersburg was at his zenith. "That's why I took him in this squad," said coach Guus Hiddink, whose richly-deserved reputation received further enhancement. "He can make a difference. He made things happen."
He did indeed. Russia were transformed and, with it, they reached the knock-out stages, while Sweden failed to progress, having done so in their last three competitions under Lars Lagerback who professed to being "bitter" at his team's limp performance.
There will be retirements – Henrik Larsson could go, but denied it, while Fredrik Ljungberg and Olof Mellberg may follow – but Lagerback claimed no one had told him they were quitting. They appeared to be in their bath chairs at times last night as the Russians, so quick and nimble of thought and foot, ran rings around them. All afternoon helicopters full of Moscow's great and good, Roman Abramovich rumoured to be among them, swooped low into Innsbruck. The whole parade will now whiz along to Basle for a quarter-final with the Netherlands that will mean much to Hiddink and should be a feast of attacking football.
There was plenty on show and Arshavin, who missed two early chances, ran it. Raking passes and dangerous crosses soon became intricate, incisive moves and mid-way through the first-half they swept forward for Aleksandr Anyukov to pull the ball back. Roman Pavlyuchenko calmly stroked it home. Stung, the Swedes almost hit back immediately when Henrik Larsson cleverly met Mikael Nilsson's deep cross only for his header to ping off the bar. But they were out-manoeuvred by the Russians.
Still Igor Akinfeev had to block from Larsson and Nilsson, and recover quickly as Peter Hansson threatened to poke the ball in from a free-kick after the goalkeeper fumbled. But Russia were dominant and struck again, pouring forward, with Yuri Zhirkov squaring from the left for Arshavin to easily beat Isaksson with a low shot.
Sweden were shredded. They threw on more strikers but it was Russia who shuddered the woodwork again through Zyryanov's shot before Isaksson denied Arshavin. But there is a new star in the firmament of this tournament.
Russia (4-1-3-1-1): Akinfeev; Anyukov, Kolodin, Ignashevich, Zhirkov; Semak; Zyryanov, Semshov, Bilyaletdinov (Saenko, 66); Arshavin; Pavlyuchenko (Bystrov, 90).
Sweden (4-4-2); Isaksson; Stoor, Mellberg, Hansson, M Nilsson (Allback, 79); Elmander, Svensson, Andersson (Kallstrom, 56), Ljungberg; Ibrahimovic, H Larsson.
Referee: F De Bleeckere (Belgium).
Man of the match: Arshavin.
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