The semi-finals will be Germany v. Turkey and Russia v. Spain. I think you could have gotten long odds on this foursome before the tournament. Of the four, only Germany was a stone cold favorite. The bugbear of Spanish failure in major tournaments argued for one or both of the Group of Death teams -- Holland, Italy or France -- to be in the semi's. Certainly not Spain and Russia. If it had to be two Group D teams, it was more likely Sweden than Russia.
But ... Germany struggled out of Group B behind the Croats; Turkey rallied bravely to beat Switzerland, then Czech Republic, then Croatia; Russia reversed their early fortunes and beat Sweden and Holland; and Spain cruised through their group before outlasting Italy in a shootout. So there you have it.
The top five matches for me were:
I think the Croatia-Turkey match was technically "better" than the Holland-France match, and would have been my #3 if the Croats had won it in extra time as it looked like they would. But the junk Turkey goal at the end and their shootout win just ruined it for me. I like Turkey, but that was a terrible ending to an amazing performance by Croatia in this tournament.
Turkey-Czech Republic was one of the best football matches I have ever watched. It had everything -- high stakes (a guaranteed place in the second round for the winner, the possibility of penalties if it ended in a draw), tons of goals, and one of the most remarkable comebacks ever, as Turkey overcame a two goal lead in the last 15 minutes. It was glorious. Ultimately, though, I felt it was more drama than quality.
Spain-Italy was actually drab as football matches go. Italy played very negative football, with an occasional long ball or free kick aimed at Toni. Bleh. Spain tried to lay siege with possession and skill, but couldn't finish. 0-0 for 120 minutes. Not normally my favorite kind of match.
But I watched it with my Spanish father-in-law and my football-crazed seven year old, wearing their red jerseys, and we were hanging on every half-chance. My son was so nervous he was literally bouncing up and down on the couch. When golden boy Fernando Torres was substituted for the totally overrated Guiza, we booed (we were right, too -- Torres had been inspiring, while Guiza was ineffective and then proceeded to miss a penalty in the shootout). When Casillas saved Di Natale's penalty and Fabregas stepped up and buried his match-winner (his first ever penalty kick in an international -- no pressure, kid), we were ecstatic.
But it was the relentless and beautiful Russian offensive onslaught against the Dutch that really made it my match of the tournament so far. The Russians should have been scared of the Dutch, who scored the most goals of any team in the group stage (nine, allowing only one), crushed France, Italy and Romania and looked destined for the final. Somebody forgot to mention this to Andrei Arshavin. He terrorized the Dutch in the first 50 minutes -- I thought he had three outright chances that he basically made by himself. When Pavlyuchenko scored the first goal, no way could you say it was against the run of play. Russia should have won it outright, but Holland came back and Van Nistelrooy stole a goal in the last couple of minutes.
In the second period of extra time, Arshavin, whose fitness was unbelievable, put the Dutch away. First, he made a crazy run down the left to the end line and crossed to the far post for Torbinski's go-ahead goal. It was Arshavin's third aggressive, dangerous cross in extra-time. Then minutes later he took a long throw-in and turned the defender brilliantly, slotting the ball through Van Der Saar's legs for the kill shot. Awesome football.
Predictions for the semi's? You have to see Germany as the heavy favorite against Turkey. But I think it may be closer than the pundits think. Turkey are very tough, both physically and mentally. They are just too depleted from injuries. I think it's 2-0, Germany. But I wouldn't be surprised if it goes to extra time 0-0 and the Germans have to struggle to win it.
Spain will have their hands full with Russia. Both teams are young, fast and skillful. Spain is more experienced, better at defending, and has more international stars; Russia has the motivation, the better coach, and the one guy who can make a play when he needs to most. Spain abused Russia 4:1 in the first match of the group stage, but Arshavin was on the bench due to a red card suspension he picked up in qualifying (against Andorra -- is that even a country?), and Russia clearly didn't have their sea legs early in the tournament. Too close to call, but it feels like 2:1 Spain in a wide-open match.
Any of the possible finals will produce intriguing story lines. Clearly, Germany-Spain would be the marquee matchup, but Germany-Russia would be intense, too. Russia-Turkey would have the European football world reeling -- more even than the improbable Greek run in 2004. I can't wait.