Guus Hiddink’s Russia face Spain in a rematch of their group opener in Viennon Thursday. Spain thrashed Russia 4-1 since then, but Guus Hiddink has masterminded a turnaround that has seen Russia beat Greece, Sweden and the Netherlands to reach the last four for the first time in over two decades.
Russia have displayed a marked improvement since the return of Andrei Arshavin to the starting XI, and all eyes will again be on the Zenit St. Petersburg playmaker as they look to orchestrate Spain’s downfall. The Russians are lightning quick on the counter, and physically outmatched the Dutch in extra time in their quarterfinal despite having faced Sweden only a few days earlier. Centreback Denis Kolodin is suspended for this clash, and Vasily Berezutskiy is likely to partner Sergey Ignasevich in defence. Kolodin had a horrid time against Torres in Russia’s opener in Innsbruck, but did a very good job of marking Ruud Van Nistelrooy in the quarterfinal game. Dmitri Torbinsky, who came off the bench to score against the Netherlands is also suspended. Full back Yuri Zhirkov loves to go forward, and in combination with Arshavin, could cause tremendous problems for Sergio Ramos on Russia’s left. Pavyluchenko must improve his conversion rate, and the likes of Zyryanov and Semshov will have to continue to creat opportunities for him. Spain will be Russia’s first serious challenge with two in form strikers in four games- Greece and Holland played with one upfront, and Ibrahimovic was not fully fit for Sweden.
Spain were the only team with a 100% record at the group stage to survive the last eight. And crossing the quarterfinal hurdle that has been their undoing in recent times would have given great confidence to Luis Aragones’ team. Spain and Russia have similar styles of play, and Spain will feel that they can cause problems for Russia with pinpoint passing and great movement, as they did in the opener. Villa and Torres were kept quiet against Italy, and the duo will be keen to roar again. The duo were clever in the opener, making diagonal runs behind the Russian defence to expose gaping holes. Aragones may be tempted to give super sub Fabregas a start, but tinkering with his starting XI at such an important juncture may not be the best thing to do. Much will depend on how Spain handle the threat posed by Arshavin. The Russian wingbacks- Anyukov and Zhirkov also love to go forward, and Spain will have to neutralise them.
Hiddink has faltered at the semifinal stage twice- with Holland in 1998 and South Korea in 2002. Spain are favourites, but Russia’s enthusiasm could see them through. Russia 3-2 Spain in extra time- Arshavin, Zhirkov and Pavyluchenko to score for Russia. Torres and Villa for Spain.