Attack the only form of defence

IT began with what the orange t-shirts called ‘Basle – The Invasion’ and ended with something more closely resembling the retreat from Moscow.

Saturday saw 100,000 Dutch supporters converge on the old Swiss border town and, rivalling the dazzling sunshine as high summer finally arrived in Switzerland, they truly were a sight to behold.

Across the main bridge over the Rhine, along the banks of the river and in all the streets and squares, the tide of orange humanity was huge and irrepressible. According to reports, there were also some 10,000 Russians in the city but, if so, they were smothered in the orange crush.

A similar ratio was more evident inside St Jacob-Park but, in what would prove to be a sign of things to come, it was the Russians who were making all the noise in the run-up to kick-off. The impressively massed ranks of the Dutch were strangely silent, as if they felt that the overwhelming power of colour alone would be enough to carry Marco Van Basten’s team to victory.

Hubris, I think, is the word.

Well, now, they know better. Russia more than made up the numbers where it counted – on the pitch, with Andrei Arshavin simply outstanding, and in the dug-out, where Guus Hiddink masterminded the downfall of his native land. After the game, the 27-year-old Arshavin paid tribute to the man they call ‘The Wizard’ back in Moscow.

“One brilliant coach beat 11 excellent players,” he said, although his understandable generosity was wrong on both counts. Yes, Hiddink deserves praise for organising the game-plan but it was Arshavin himself who really made the difference on the field of play. As for Dutch excellence – that mysteriously disappeared after the scintillating goalfests against Italy and France, with manager Marco Van Basten admitting that even he was at a loss to know why his team hadn’t shown up on the day.

But if it’s any consolation to the Dutch, it’s hard to think of any side that wouldn’t have difficulty coping with the Russians in this form. And, ultimately, the reasons for the decisive 3-1 outcome weren’t all that hard to decipher. Arshavin’s presence might have been the catalyst – it’s no coincidence that he was suspended when they were thrashed in their opening game by Spain and then barely edged out Greece in their second – but Russia are by no means a one-man band. On Saturday, Holland’s Orlando Engelaar and Nigel de Jong were made to look positively arthritic by the inventive passing and sudden bursts forward of Semshov and Zyryanov from the heart of the Russian midfield. And their dominance of the ball was always going to prove productive given that, ahead of them, were the inspirational Arshavin and the piercing spearhead of Roman Pavlyuchenko.

Russia’s opening goal was a thing of beauty. Arshavin got on the ball and cut inside, dragging two Dutch players with him. Semak, nominally a defensive midfielder, was suddenly bombing up the left flank and Arshavin barely had to look up to find him with a perfectly weighted reverse pass.

Semak then made the most of the wide-open space to fire a low ball across the face of the goal where the leggy Pavluchenko arrived with the timing of a Swiss train to volley past the helpess Van der Sar at the near post.

In short, the Dutch had been undone by the game they had invented – total football.

Yet, before Arshavin finally put the issue beyond doubt in extra-time – first, by making things easy for Torbinski with a scooped cross of such invention and precision that Tiger Woods would have been proud to achieve something similar with a golf club, and then scoring one himself by taking full advantage of a quick throw-in – the thoroughly outclassed Dutch had still managed to get back on level terms.

The manner in which they did so was revealing. When Van Nistelrooy headed in a free-kick at the far post, it was only to achieve at the third attempt what the Dutch had twice come close to doing earlier in the game when Van der Vaart’s in-swinging frees tempted the Russian defence into playing a risky offside trap. Here, even in their hour of triumph, were more examples of what Hiddink himself had called Russian “naivety” in that initial 4-1 hiding by Spain.

To that extent, Russia’s victory on Saturday was emblematic of Euro 2008, a tournament in which defences have rarely been on top. Italy were always going to have trouble coping without Cannavaro, France fell apart as age caught up with Thuram and even Portugal – with Pepe and Carvalho on paper a winning combination — managed to concede three against Germany, who were themselves sufficiently charitable at the back to allow Postiga give the Portuguese a glimmer of false hope with a free header at the death.

And, of course, Switzerland, the Czech Republic and, most notably, Croatia, have all failed to hold onto leads and see out games against the indomitable Turks.

In other words, Euro 2008 has been all about attack as the best, indeed sometimes the only, form of defence, something which has made for a fantastically entertaining tournament for the fans but which has doubtless had coaches all over the world brushing up on their defensive tactics as they rush to close the door. After all, keeping things tight at the back and making the most of set-pieces was how Greece grinded their way to an improbable victory four years ago. And with Giovanni Trapattoni ever ready to acknowledge that achievement, the sumptuous fare on offer in Austria and Switzerland will doubtless reinforce his conviction that, for Ireland to have any hope of competing with the kind of fast-paced, fluent, attacking football which has been the norm out here, he will have to make the most of eliminating errors at the back and maximising set-piece opportunities at the other end of the pitch.

At least Ireland can be grateful that they won’t have to deal with Arshavin in the World Cup qualifiers although, after his starring role in Euro 2008, it won’t be any surprise if Irish players encounter the Zenit St Petersburg ace in the Premier League next season.

Taxi – sorry, I mean Lear jet — to west London for Mr Arshavin?

HOLLAND: Van der Sar, Boulahrouz (Heitinga 54), Ooijer, Mathijsen, Van Bronckhorst, De Jong, Engelaar (Afellay 61), Kuyt (Van Persie 46), Van der Vaart, Sneijder, van Nistelrooy.

RUSSIA: Akinfeev, Aniukov, Ignashevich, Kolodin, Zhirkov, Semak, Zyryanov, Semshov (Bilyaletdinov 69), Saenko (Torbinsky 81), Arshavin, Pavluchenko (Sychev 115).

Referee: Lubos Michel (Slovakia)

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