This feature is a part of RETEUROSPECTIVE
In sport, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when a good thing starts. Did Micheal Jordan’s Chicago Bulls start with his debut in 1984 or the opening game of their first championship-winning season? Spain’s era of dominance faces a similar issue. Did it start right at the end of that disastrous 2006 World Cup, or the long unbeaten run in the lead up to Euro 2008? Or did it start in the same manner that the glory days of the past ended, with a European Championship game against Russia?
To describe the atmosphere for this match as electric might seem a bit cliche, but in the lead up to that opening Group D game, it could not have been more appropriate. Over 30,000 fans were packed into Tivoli-Neu stadium in Innsbruck with thousands more watching from squares in Moscow and Madrid, all of whom seemed to thrum with a crackling undercurrent of energy. The weather mirrored the crowd, too, as jagged flashes of lightning erupted behind the players during the national anthem.
Spain kicked off the match and began an all too familiar gameplan of short passes, probing their opponents for early weaknesses. It didn’t take long before they found a few. Within seven minutes, Fernando Torres had taken the first shot in anger. Seconds later, a young full-back named Sergio Ramos hit a crossfield ball onto the chest of David Villa. The Valencia forward was just halted before he could have an effort at goal.
Though ominous, Spain’s early start was not a sign of what was to come, as Russia grew into the game, creating the first big chance of the match through Igor Semshov, whose close-range shot was deflected wide. Russia challenged Spain’s dominance of the possession stat but, unfortunately, La Roja proved to be just as dangerous without the ball as they were with it.
Around the 20th minute mark, Sergei Semak attempted to find a teammate deep in Spain’s half with a driving ball. The pass was deflected back into the Russian half and Denis Kolodin was forced to chase back with Torres breathing down his neck. The defender attempted to flick the ball away, but only managed to divert the ball into Torres’ path.
The finish arrived in classic Spanish fashion, as Torres opted to set up Villa with an empty net – a gift he gratefully accepted. No doubt fuelled by the manner in which they conceded, Russia immediately went on the offensive from the kick-off, Konstantin Zyrnanov hitting the post within a minute of his side going down. Spain responded with a dangerous attack of their own. On the counter, Villa played an ambitious through ball to Torres whose chipped shot was foiled by the Russian goalkeeper.
Torres and Villa were certainly the stars of the first half, not just in terms of their potent attacking threat, but also because they linked up so well. Not long after being denied, Torres called Igor Akinfeev into another good save with a shot from distance. The Liverpool forward then returned a favour to his national teammate, setting him up for a shot with a near-identical through ball into the Russian penalty area.
It would take until the end of the first half before Spain doubled their advantage, Capdevilla charging forward on the counter after another fruitless attack from the Russians. The full-back passed infield to Andrés Iniesta, who twisted left and right before playing yet another through ball into Villa. The in-form striker slotted home through the keeper’s legs to seal a well-earned first-half brace.
Left with little choice in the second half, Russia continued to try and hold onto the ball, looking for a goal to get back into the game. Despite the healthy scoreline, this game continued to be an exciting match-up. Russia insisted on having their fair share of the ball and, despite one presuming they would be at a disadvantage, Spain had a mean streak long enough to challenge their opponents physically.
What continued to decide the game, however, was Spain’s marauding counter-attacks. La Roja had three good chances before extending their advantage. First, a Silva-Xavi one-two ended with the former hitting a shot over the crossbar, and then Villa was narrowly denied a hat-trick thanks to a last-ditch interception in the Russian penalty area.
As the drizzle became a torrent, the newly introduced Santi Carzola joined Villa and Sliva on the counter with each taking turns to take fake shots, sending Russians sliding left and right upon the slick surface before Silva’s shot once again went off target.
The third goal finally came 15 minutes from full-time. Winning the ball back in midfield, three simple, zipped passes tore Russia’s defence wide open, allowing the ever-hungry Villa to slip in behind. Wrestling with his marker, he eventually shook off the defender and fired home at the near post.
The game practically finished, Luis Aragonés’ side took their foot off the pedal and Russia, finally, got themselves on the score sheet. From a corner, Zyryanov’s cross was flicked onto the diving head of Roman Pavlyuchenko.
The 3-1 scoreline would have been flattering for Russia, but unfortunately for them, the late consolation riled the Spanish and they restored their three-goal advantage in additional time. A loose pass from Kolodin was intercepted by Villa. Two against one, he waited for reinforcements rushing up the pitch. Reaching the edge of the box, he chipped a pass over two Russian defenders into Xavi who struck the ball on the volley. Akinfeev denied the first effort, but he was powerless to stop Cesc Fàbregas pouncing on the rebound.
The full-time whistle blew shortly after, signalling the completion of another seemingly effortless victory for the Spanish.
By Kristofer McCormack