One couldn’t have expected another three-goal margin of victory for Spain, especially with the way the Russians consummately dispatched the Dutch last Saturday. And for the first 45 minutes, it certainly didn’t look happening.
Once again, Spain started well enough, dominating possession and tempo but with little to show for it. Berezutski, who marked Torres very well, and the rest of the Russian defense weren’t giving Spain any openings to put their possession to use, while Akinfeev was making the few saves he needed to. An injury to Villa, who appeared to hurt himself taking a free kick and went off for Fabregas in the 34th, didn’t help matters either.
But at the same time, Russia offered next to nothing in attack, and Arshavin, the man who had been so impressive in their previous two games, was often invisible. Casillas didn’t have a save to make in the entire first half, with Russia’s lone chance coming when a Pavlyuchenko free kick sailed over the bar 16 minutes in.
But five minutes after the restart, Spain’s pressure paid dividends and an early goal sent them on their way. Iniesta, who played mostly on the left, cut inside, and appeared to aim a shot at the far post. It was going wide, but Xavi had continued his run and was able to redirect it past a sprawling Akinfeev.
From there, the game opened up a bit with the Russians in need of an equalizer. Torres had two decent chances, coming in the 62nd and 63rd minutes -- first unable to get a cross on target from a narrow angle and then getting stuck between a volley and a header on another Ramos cross, only to knee it helplessly wide. The latter was a chance he would have buried in a Liverpool shirt, but even with the striker misfiring he still looked dangerous.
But then, again, Aragones saw fit to take him off, bringing on Guiza (and Alonso for Xavi) in the 69th minute. However, this time it worked exactly as the manager drew it up, with Guiza getting his second goal of the tournament four minutes after coming on. In a goal made by substitutes, Fabregas delicately lobbed the ball over the top for an onside Guiza to chip over the keeper.
The second goal took all the wind out of the opposition, and Spain was able to drop the tempo and play keep-away. When the Russians got possession they had to send as many forward as possible in order to get one back, and Spain was able to take advantage in the 82nd, with Iniesta brilliantly finding Fabregas on the left with a long pass out of defense. Cesc took a touch and slide-rule centered for Silva to control and slot past Akinfeev.
Sychev nearly got a consolation in the 88th but for an excellent save from Casillas (with a free header from a free kick, something that the Spanish will have to improve on and how Germany was able to punish Portugal), while Guiza was denied a fourth in the 90th to keep the score at 3-0.
I still maintain the scoreline flatters the Spanish, but they were far and away better today than against the Italians, and it was the improvement from the likes of Iniesta and Ramos that was a big reason for it. Throughout the game Ramos was more composed and made no silly challenges, but was still able to get forward to put in threatening crosses. Meanwhile, as the game went on, Iniesta was more and more effective playing inch-perfect long balls, including the one that set up Fabregas to assist on Spain’s third goal.
Spain’s midfield, especially when it was 5 vs 5, bossed Russia’s, kept them from playing the football that beat the Dutch, and Fabregas was the centerpiece of it. The substitute was probably the man of the match for his two-assist performance and the way he was able to replace the tournament’s leading goalscorer off the bench. He directed traffic, linked the play, and popped up left, right, and center. I’d be stunned if he doesn’t retain his place if Villa isn’t fit.
This will be Spain’s first major final since Euro 84, and the players did well to not succumb to nerves today having made it this far. There was a mountain of pressure in finally making a semifinal and being favorites, with the Russians unfancied even after their win over Holland. But Germany will be a very different, and tougher, proposition -- not only because of their experience (this will be their sixth Euro final, having won three) but also their aforementioned capabilities on set pieces.