It is a measure of how entertaining Euro 2008 has been that we had to wait until the fourth quarter-final before we got the first goalless 120 minutes. But then, perhaps it wasn’t that surprising with the world’s best keepers on show.
Iker Casillas won the battle of the number ones with Gianluigi Buffon. With an instinctive feet-first save in the first half, an acrobatic tip over from Antonio Di Natale’s second half header and two terrific penalty stops, Casillas was the night’s hero for Spain. In contrast, Gianluigi Buffon had looked on edge, with a post sparing his blushes when he let Marco Senna’s shot slip through his fingers.
Casillas’s status as the world’s best keeper has become something of an obsession for the Spanish media, who feel the Real Madrid man does not get the recognition he deserves. Part of the problem is that Casillas plays for a club where so many other stars hog the limelight. But tonight, with the world watching, Casillas demonstrated his worth.
So a little bit of history is made by Spain. After losing three penalty shoot-outs on the same date, June 22, they finally triumphed. It was no less than they deserved after they showed the greater urgency in extra time. Italy missed the suspensed Andrea Pirlo and Gennaro Gattuso, but Alberto Aquilani did a decent job in their place. Ultimately, the Italian inquisition will focus on Luca Toni’s goalless tournament.
The neutrals in the Viennese crowd, of which there were many, chose to back the Spanish and that appeared to lift Spain. The crowd took particular exception to Di Natale for feigning injury in extra time. Did the intense whistling contribute to Di Natale’s penalty miss? Possibly, but taking the spot-kicks at the Spanish fans’ end certainly did.
Some Spanish observers believe the national team suffers from an inferiority complex when they play Italy. Results down the years certainly back that argument, but others will also argue that the Spanish suffer from a wider psychological flaw about playing on the big stage. Now for the first time in 24 years, Spain are in the semi-finals. For once, the stereotypes have been broken.
It was ferociously hot yesterday in Vienna, even hotter then in Basle the day before. Everybody attending the fan zones could enjoy the sunshine but it was less than ideal for the players, who had to endure conditions of extreme humidity in the Ernst Happel stadium.
One of the reasons Euro 2008 has been such a great tournament on the pitch has been the unseasonally poor weather. It rained for much of the group stages and that created mistake-inducing conditions. Under such hot and humid conditions in Vienna, was it any surprise that Spain and Italy did not create that much goalmouth excitement? If the intense heat continues next week, what are the odds that Turkey, their squad back to bare bones through injuries and suspensions, try to play it safe against Germany?
One of the benefits for TV audiences watching from the comfort of their own living rooms is that they miss the inane ramblings of the cretinous stadium announcers before, during and after the matches.
Football’s obsession with turning matches into “entertainment experiences” has reached a new low at Euro 2008. It’s impossible to ignore the clueless announcers, who seem to have been hired from Austrian kids TV. Their pronouncements from the side of the pitch are relayed around the stadium via the giant screens. In the Spain-Italy quarter-final, the perma-tanned buffoon on duty excelled himself by announcing, as the tension was mounting before the penalty shoot-out: “And let’s watch the highlights of the 20 minutes of extra time.”
It cannot be a coincidence that three group winners have exited the tournament after resting their first elevens for the final group match.
Physically, the players from Portugal, Croatia and Holland may have been given a break. But in terms of their mental wellbeing, it proved to be an interruption, breaking up each team’s momentum just when they needed to move up a gear.
In contrast, Russia are motoring along after a very shaky start against Spain. In general, great tournament teams triumph because they win the mental battles as well as the physical ones. Think Italy two years ago in Germany, with their siege mentality induced by the Calciopoli scandal.
Russia have a coach in Guus Hiddink who is a magnificent motivator with the knack of getting players to feel better about themselves. He did with South Korea in 2002, and he looks to be doing it again with the notoriously insular Russians.