Fabregas turns tide for Spanish Armada

SPAIN will play Germany in the European Championship 2008 final on Sunday, after a convincing second-half performance in rain-soaked Vienna comfortably saw off the disappointing challenge of Guus Hiddink’s Russia.

Looking entirely out of sorts, the new Russian ‘supertsar’, Andrei Arshavin, made minimal impact on a game in which Arsenal’s Cesc Fabregas, an early substitute for injured striker David Villa, was the outstanding player on the pitch.

Fabregas now looks destined to start the final after Spanish manager Spain coach Luis Aragones confirmed: “David Villa will miss the final. It’s not serious but he has a muscle injury.”

On his chances of playing in the decider, Fabregas said: “I am here when the manager needs me.”

That Spain were well worth their three goal margin of victory, is inarguable.

But for neutrals, it was still hugely disappointing to see the Russians end the competition exactly as they had begun it against the Spanish, not with a bang, but a whimper. After their impressive recovery from that initial heavy set-back, we were all expecting to see a very different Russia last night. But they simply didn’t show up.

When these two teams met in Innsbruck in their opening Group game, Spain ran out 4-1 winners, with Villa registering a hat-trick.

Yet, that scoreline more than flattered the Spanish, who had been able to exploit Russian ineptitude at the back while riding their own luck to a certain extent as Guus Hiddink’s team were forced to chase the game.

But the Dutch master is a quick learner, and ruthless when he needs to be. Midfielder turned centre-half Roman Shirokov lost his place while his partner that day, Denis Kolodin, was reprieved but only by showing the kind of improved performance which suggested the manager had taken him for a drink in the last-chance saloon.

However, Kolodin was suspended for last night’s game which forced Hiddink into another rearguard reshuffle, partnering Sergie Ignashevich and Vasili Berezuski at the centre of defence for the first time in the tournament. Luis Aragones, by contrast, had the luxury of fielding his preferred 11 again, meaning that Fabregas – the penalty shoot-out hero against Italy – once again had to be content with starting place on the bench.

But the biggest change for Russia since that first day defeat had been wrought by the 27-year-old overnight sensation Andrei Arshavin. The architect of Russia’s impressive 3-1 defeat of Holland in the quarter-finals, he was the man to whom, not only all of the motherland, but it seems all of football, was looking to stamp his genius on the Vienna stage last night. Sadly, it didn’t happen.

It didn’t help, of course, that Arshavin was so strangely muted, his literally pedestrian pace suggesting that he must have been carrying a knock.

Roman Pavlyunchenko got one fine curling effort on target but, at full stretch, Iker Casillas finger-tipped it away.

Ultimately it was Spain who came up with the winning combination. It didn’t take long after the restart for the game to burst into life. Andres Iniesta’s driven ball into the box may have been intended as a shot but, slicing between the static red shirts, Xavi Hernandez stretched to make contact and stabbed the ball past Akinfeev.

Russia should have fallen further behind in the 62nd minute when Torres contrived to miss from directly in front of goal after Sergio Ramos had fired in the perfect cross from the right.

That was the Liverpool man’s last chance to impress as Aragones rang the changes, but it was Spain who continued to supply all the meaningful pressure, Fabregas threatening with a shot from distance which Akinfeev tipped over the top.

Xabi Alonso, on as a substitute, had also extracted a save from the busy Russian keeper before Spain finally doubled their advantage in the 73rd minute.

Again Fabregas was excellent, lifting a perfectly-timed, one-touch pass over the defence and into the path of Daniel Guiza who, in turn, dinked it over the helpless Akinfeev.

And after 81 minutes, they made it three, Iniesta putting Fabregas away on the left, the Arsenal man’s precise ball inside making it easy for David Silva to wrap up the tie – and, with it, a place in the final.

Subs for Russia: Diniyar Bilyaletdinov for Igor Semshov (55) Dmitri Sychev for Ivan Saenko (57)

Subs for Spain: Cesc Fabregas for David Villa (33) Xabi Alonso for Xavi Hernandez (68) Daniel Guiza for Fernando Torres (68)


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