Wednesday, June 18, 2008

a beautiful effort by xabi alonso and the sheer awfulness of watching italy v france

Anyone who remembers Spain v Saudi Arabia in the last World Cup will recall how positively laissez-faire the boys from the Spanish bench can be in throwaway games. Maybe it was the heat on that particular day, or maybe they had something more to prove in a seemingly no-stakes match against the already-ousted Greeks today, but it was a good game. I wouldn't say it was enjoyable, since the Greek side was broken-hearted but dignified, its silver-haired keeper retiring from International play after this final match, but both sides fought well and truly to a respectable result. Yesterday during France v Italy (brr. I shudder just to speak it), ubercommentator Andy Grey said that "a biscuit ending" is the term for a lopsided match outcome resulting from a team already assured of its place in the next round relaxing and letting a still-struggling team win. Although I think because Greece had no hopes this could not have been an honest-to-pete Biscuit Ending, I was half expecting... who am I kidding? I was COMPLETELY expecting some lackadaisical playing from the men in red. I'm pleased to say I was dead wrong.

Luis Aragones, the Man with the Perpetual Scowl, rested ten of his starting eleven, with only Andres Iniesta carrying over. Still, any B-team that has Cesc Fabregas and Xabi Alonso in its midfield is what my Uncle Roy would call a bench so good it feels like cheatin'. And it looked like the Xabi-and-Cesc show for a long time in. There were many rushed shots flying wide and high from strikers eager to prove themselves to the boss, but at the heart of it were Cesc and Xabi, calm and confident, delivering perfect passes right to the feet of their forward men, setting up dangerous plays which eventually paid off. Xabi himself very nearly got in one of those fantastic thunderstrikes he likes to deliver from his own end of the pitch (against Luton Town in the 2006 FA Cup third-round tie from 65 yards, and again in a Newcastle match in September of that year). This one flew just barely wide, and it was so fast, hard and unexpected that Antonios Nikopolidis wrapped himself around the post trying to reach it, nearly knocking himself out.

The final score was 2-1 Spain, with goals by Angelos Charisteas, an unstoppable header for the Greeks in the 42nd minute, equalised by Ruben de la Red of Real Madrid (he does one of those Luis Garcia thumbsucking celebrations, alas) in the second half, then won with a header in by Dani Guiza of Mallorca in the 88th.

The bad news is that Xabi Alonso seems Juventus-bound. Nice for him. Bad for me. I always loved the pairing of Gerrard and Alonso in the Liverpudlian midfield.

As for France v. Italy, let's say as little as possible, shall we? I've now seen these two sides meet exactly twice. In the first, Thierry Henry got an inauspicious thump to the head within the first twenty minutes, and that lovely Zidane fellow came to a rather bad end before the day was out with a different sort of head-thump. Yesterday was hardly better. Riberry was out on a stretcher before ten minutes was gone, there was a flurry of bookings for both sides (Pirlo and Gattuso will both be sidelined in the match against Spain. Feels like cheatin' if we win that way, but I can't say I'll mind) including a dreaded red card for Eric Abidal who made a terrible tackle on Toni in the box. Much as I dislike Luca Toni, he'd stretched out with a grace nothing short of balletic to get a lovely touch on a pass in the area and Abidal saw no recourse but to barge into him from behind. It was one of those red cards that was so inevitable that even if the ref had been on the French payroll, he'd still have had to give it.

Anyway, it got worse from there, with Henry and his Gauls limping across the finish line with few or no good moments to show for it. Pirlo got the initial penalty with one sweet, short stroke and I don't even remember who got the second goal. It's possible I'd turned it off before then. Les Bleus are not a team I care about, not since Zidane is retired, and it was STILL like having a tooth out to watch it. Brrr. I'm shuddering again.

So on to the Quarterfinals: Germany v Portugal on Thursday (I'm hoping for some of the hellish good Schadenfreude fun I had during Italy v Germany during the World Cup), Croatia v Turkey on Friday, Russia takes on the Brilliant Orange on Saturday, and then the big one: Spain v Italy on Sunday.

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