- 21 Jun 08, 11:55 PM
Russia must now be regarded as major contenders at Euro 2008 after a breathtaking quarter-final victory over a Dutch side that had swept all before them in the so-called "Group of Death".
Andrei Arshavin capped off another sublime display with the decisive third goal to further boost his burgeoning reputation, while the result is another triumph for coach Guus Hiddink, who has honed a side that beat his countrymen at their own game.
It was Russia who looked the most fluent in possession, closed down with the greatest fervour, struck decisively on the counter attack and created the bulk of the clear-cut openings.
Hiddink had pledged to attack and was true to his word as his team took the match to a Netherlands outfit that struggled to find the fluency that characterised their previous three games.
The Dutch passing was often poor and their touch disappointing, which inevitably caused them difficulties when attempting to move from defence to attack.
Holland, like Portugal and Croatia before them, rested the majority of their first-team players for their final group game after securing qualification, but it is a tactic that appears to have backfired. All three are out, while Spain, who also chose to give the star men a break when they played Greece, face Italy on Sunday.
Russia must be credited for the manner in which they stifled their opponents on Saturday. The willingness of their players to harass and hurry is testament to their outstanding fitness - witness how strongly they played during extra-time - and ultimately paid rich dividends in shutting down the Dutch.
The Russian full-backs, Aleksandr Anyukov and Yuri Zhirkov, attacked with great intent, limiting the effectiveness of Wesley Sneijder, Dirk Kuyt and, later, Robin van Persie.
Nigel de Jong and Orlando Engelaar, Holland's two least effective midfielders in terms of distribution, saw plenty of the ball and in areas where they could not hurt Russia.
And it is no coincidence that Marco van Basten's team looked most dangerous when delivering free-kicks into the penalty area from wide areas. De Jong went within inches of scoring from a teasing delivery by Rafeal van der Vaart before another eventually produced Ruud van Nistelrooy's late equaliser.
Russia, in stark contrast, repeatedly exposed Dutch defensive frailties, with Roman Pavlyuchenko striking the woodwork and Edwin van der Sar producing a string of outstanding saves.
Their ambition and desire was no more apparent than in the 70th minute. Leading 1-0, they poured forward, only a brilliant save from Van der Sar denying Anyukov.
The anxiety was evident amongst the Dutch supporters. They may have vastly outnumbered their rivals but were strangely quiet, certainly when contrasted with the atmosphere inside the Stade de Suisse for their three group games.
Likewise, the Dutch players seemed rattled and constantly questioned the decisions of referee Lubos Michel. Van der Vaart punching the floor in frustration was a feature of the match, while, at three rows from the Dutch dug-out, I could hear some players punching it as they increasingly lost their cool.
Van Basten's team had struggled to make Euro 2008, labouring to two 1-0 victories over Luxembourg. But the coach changed his tactics after several meetings with senior players, the traditional formation of 4-3-3, one heavily favoured by Van Basten's mentor Johan Cruyff, giving way to 4-2-3-1.
It appeared to be working brilliantly, the Dutch squad and their magnificent supporters growing in confidence with every victory in Switzerland. Van Persie even claimed before the game that the squad felt unbeatable. But the Arsenal frontman had reckoned without Hiddink and the gifted players at his disposal.
Hiddink, of course, has an exceptional record at major tournaments, having never failed to progress to the knockout stages with Holland, South Korea, Australia and now at Euro 2008 with Russia.
The match had been billed in advance as the most pure footballing contest we would see at Euro 2008. If that was the case, then Hiddink emerged as the clear winner.
Van Basten, who conducted himself with great dignity throughout the campaign, now steps down as Dutch boss after a four-year reign in order to move into club management with Ajax. Hiddink has a semi-final against either Italy or Spain to negotiate.
The 61-year-old had said that his squad, the youngest at Euro 2008, would not reach its peak until the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. But looking at the way they demolished Sweden and then defeated the Dutch, his team look the real deal now.
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