TO GET to the Ernst Happel stadion from our base here in Vienna, we have to negotiate a busy thoroughfare called Arsenalstrasse, and you can’t help but wonder if Spain have also passed this way – pun fully intended — en route to tomorrow’s Euro 2008 final against Germany.
For the Eurosceptics amongst you – and, by now, that should be no more than a recalcitrant rump as this extravagant tournament reaches its climax – it’s possible, with a few critical adjustments, to recast the final in Premier League terms, with Spain as Arsenal and Germany as Chelsea.
It’s not just the presence of Michael Ballack which prompts the latter comparison.
Easy to admire but harder to love, Germany, like Chelsea, are an efficient, robust, well-organised team whose collective spirit has seen them through some tough times, as has often been the case at Stamford Bridge, especially under Jose Mourinho.
Where the comparison falters, just as the team does, is at the back. How Germany could do with a man of steel like John Terry or a quick reader of the game such as Ricardo Carvalho. As it is, the stats from their last two wins speak for themselves, six goals scored and four conceded serving notice of a footballing split personality in which devastating counter-attacks are frequently required to bail out a porous rearguard.
Full-back Phillip Lahm’s display in that thrill-a-minute semi-final defeat of Turkey was the Nationalmannschaft personified.
Brilliant going forward and brutal at the back, the little guy was big enough after the game to concede that he should never have won UEFA’s Man Of The Match award. Although, of course, it is so much easier to be magnanimous in victory than in defeat.
So one of the big questions going into tomorrow’s game is simply this: which Germany will turn up? This tournament has already given us plenty to choose from – the Germany which impressed against Poland, slumped before Croatia, struggled to beat Austria, hit top gear against Portugal and were then hugely fortunate to edge out magnificent Turkey in that memorable semi-final in Basle.
By contrast, Spain, the only unbeaten team in these championships, have been a model of consistency, something reflected in the fact that, apart from the dead rubber match against Greece, manager Luis Aragones has been content to send out the same starting 11 in every game. However, change will be enforced tomorrow, with David Villa, the tournament’s leading scorer with four goals, ruled out through the injury he sustained in the act of taking a free kick against Russia on Thursday night. That could and should mean a deserved start for Cesc Fabregas, who was superb when he came on as a sub for Villa, but Arigones, always a law unto himself, may think otherwise.
Still, the presence of the Arsenal midfielder permits us to indulge the Iberian-North London connection. The commitment to a fluent passing game is similar, as is the not always successful pursuit of the perfect goal. Like Arsenal, Spain are the team the neutrals and purists most enjoy watching but, as they bid to win their first major competition since 1964, it’s hard to shake off the notion that, again like the Gunners this season, the Spanish could also end up as the team with nothing in the trophy cabinet to show for their veneration of the beautiful game.
They are, after all, playing Germany and, as even Turkey — the undisputed comeback kings of Euro 2008 — found to their cost, it really is true what they say about the folly of writing off the Germans.
There are profound reasons to regret that the Turks didn’t make it to the final since it was the least the quality of their performance against Germany deserved. And one can legitimately feel disappointed too that Russia and Andrei Arshavin simply didn’t show up in Vienna on Thursday night – just as it was a pity that Holland hadn’t shown up in Basle when Guus Hiddink’s team overpowered them in the quarter-final.
But then it’s been that kind of tournament – predictable only in its unpredictability and all the more entertaining for that. By and large, the quality of the football has been excellent and the commitment to attack refreshing.
From an Irish viewpoint, Steve Staunton might take some consolation from the fact that Germany – who only finished second in our qualifying group, after all – have reached the final, but it’s the new man, Giovanni Trapattoni, who has the most urgent homework to do in response to the lessons handed out in Austria and Switzerland.
Italy, one of Ireland’s opponents in the World Cup qualifying campaign, had a pretty disastrous outing here, from the 3-0 drubbing by Holland to their own smothering display of defensive football which almost, but thankfully not quite, did for Spain. However, Ireland’s manager will have noted that playmaker Pirlo was missing from that one and that, having flirted with retirement, iron man Fabio Cannavaro, missing for the whole tournament through injury, now appears set to extend his international career.
But the biggest change for the Azzurri will be at the top where Marcello Lippi, the man under whose guidance they won the World Cup two years ago in Germany, resumes his seat in place of Roberto Donadoni. One can only expect then that the Italians will have put these hugely disappointing championships firmly behind them by the time Il Trap and Il Lip renew their ancient and somewhat acrimonious rivalry when Ireland and Italy first meet to do battle on the road to South Africa in April of next year.
Meantime, there’s still the big one to look forward to tomorrow. These wonderful European Championships have rarely let us down to date, so we are entitled to feel confident that the final will bring to a suitable climax a tournament which, arguably, has been just about the best we’ve seen at international level since the 1982 World Cup.
International football, so often maligned at club level, has been the clear winner here.
And tomorrow? The power of Germany and the glory of Spain make it a tough one to call.
However, I tipped the Germans in these pages before the tournament kicked off, and professional loyalty, as well as recognition of their big occasion mentality, means I’ll stick with them now.
But while it would cause me no pain to see Luis Arigones – he of the racist slur against Thierry Henry – depart the international stage a loser before he takes up his new post with Fenerbache, I’ll be just as happy to give it a bit of the old ‘Y viva’ if the splendid footballers of under-achieving Spain, as well as her long-suffering supporters, finally get to celebrate a gleaming prize after 44 years of hurt.
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