Great game, great moments
It was a soccer tournament that took almost a week to catch fire, which featured the exit of some of the best teams in Europe, a dreadfully poor performance from superstar David Beckham and the surprising steady success of the Greeks ... . BRIAN GLANVILLE wraps up Euro 2004.
The biggest changing of the continental guard -- victorious Greece.
PAVEL NEDVED must have a very strong claim to be the player of the European tournament. As he modestly conceded he is no longer young, now in his 30s and needed the rest from the Czech game against Germany when they excelled themselves by winning with so many reserves. But Nedved of Juventus and ex-Lazio is your true all round midfield player in the mould of Holland's Johan Neeskens, a total footballer who can do anything and everything, at speed. He tackles well, his use of the ball is exemplary as shown by the glorious pass with which he sent Milan Baros through to score against the Danes. His energy is huge, he seems to be here, there and everywhere. He is a Harpo Marx look alike perhaps with his blond mane of hair but there is nothing remotely comic about his displays.
Another Czech I'd choose is Baros himself. He started badly it is true: I was at the game against unfancied Latvia when he culpably hung on to the ball instead of passing, lost it to big Igors Stepanovs, who promptly launched a long ball to the Latvians to open the score. In parenthesis I think I'd name Stepanovs as a salient figure in the tournament too. The stone that the builder rejected you might say, since the big central defender had a horribly lean time of it at Arsenal where his few appearances hovered on the brink of disaster. But now in Belgium with Beveren he was the lynchpin of his defence and though not actually Latvian captain, the real inspiration of a team which surpassed itself at least in its two opening games.
Back to Baros. He went on to score against Latvia and for reasons quite obscure to most of us was named "Man of the Match" despite the potentially fatal error. But he took wing after that, and showed his heartening ability to go it alone with success, take on a central defence as in the match against Germany, leave it behind him with a combination of power, skill and speed. A wonderfully old fashioned figure you might say. The two fine goals against Denmark were a proper reward, but he terrorised the heavy-footed German defence too.
Would England have survived had Wayne Rooney not been so cruelly kicked and badly injured? He was, unquestionably, till that ill-fated match against the Portuguese, one of the outstanding figures of the competition, showing the so called Big Match Temperament which is rare among players of any age, let alone among those as young as the 18-year-old Rooney, emulating the prowess of the then 18-year-old Michael Owen in the 1998 World Cup. Rooney is more than just a phenomenal striker, using his pace, power and technique to score those four goals. It has been pointed out that he is invaluable to England also because he is constantly ready to drop back into midfield, forage for the ball and set attacks going. As indeed one recalls him doing when he made his exceptional debut at Sunderland against Turkey and rallied an England team which seemed in danger of defeat.
Portugal rallied from that bleak start against the Greeks when "Big Phil" Scolari put in the right men. One of whom beyond doubt was that highly accomplished centre half Ricardo Carvalho of Porto though, alas, not for very long. It does seem absurd that for so long he was kept out of the team by the waning Fernando Couto, but once he replaced him after the Greek debacle, there was suddenly a Portuguese defence which largely looked as solid as Porto's. He is quick and sure on the ground, where Couto was slow, and dominant in the air.
Vying for control -- the Netherland's Arjen Robben with the Czech Republic's Milan Baros (right).
Another Porto player who flourished was unquestionably Dmitri Alenitchev, the veteran Russian inside forward. I'd call him that for it is what he surely is. He was the pick of a Russian side which didn't always respond to his inspiration. He'd already had a glorious European Cup final for Porto when he came on in Gelsenkirchen as a substitute against Monaco and proceeded to set up one goal and score the second himself. Never selfish, always constructive, he still, in this tournament, brought off some superb solos, with his enterprise and control.
Holland didn't use Arjen Bobben in their opening match drawn against the Germans for which their manager Dick Advocaat was properly criticised. He did bring the clever winger, bound for Chelsea, on against the Czechs in the second match in which Robben, quick, clever, intelligent, set up both goals for Holland with his crosses, one from the right, from a dead ball inswinger, the other from the left. A winger in the tradition of Rob Rensenbrink and Keizwe, had to think he could ever be left out.
Germany were a dismal disappointment but had some consolation in the form of blond Bastian Schweinsteiger, an all round attacker with pace, initiative and drive, yet such a late choice for the squad and just a sub in the first two games.
A substantial pat on the back too for Martin Petrov, the Bulgarian left winger whom the Italians found impossible to subdue. He has a wickedly strong and effective left foot which had the accomplished Azzurri keeper Gianluigi Buffon diving and sprawling, though there was nothing even he could do to stop Petrov scoring Bulgaria's goal from the penalty spot. Late in the game Petrov was clean through and seemed certain to score again, only for Buffon gallantly to frustrate him with his legs in a desperate save. In the second half Petrov was used mostly on the right but he still looked highly effective.
Wayne Rooney -- a face to look out for.
Form fluctuates of course. Holland's Robben failed against Portugal in the semi-final when Luis Figo excelled, having somewhat humiliatingly been substituted against England by Helder Postiga, virtually a Spurs reject, who proceeded to head a fine goal and score a penalty. But Figo was formidable against Holland not least when he elegantly beat his man in the first half and shot against a post. If you look for failures, David Beckham might lead the list. Essentially a one trick pony whose right foot is his fortune he has none of the true winger's gifts of pace and swerve, the essential ability to reach the goal line. He missed two vital spot kicks but you wonder at the folly of manager Sven Goran Eriksson, the coach, who not only allowed the players' wives to live near by but thus enabled Beckham's ferocious wife reportedly to give him demoralising hell over his "romantic" escapades.
By the same token, it was plainly wrong of Eriksson to permit access to the players by Liverpool's new Spaniard, Benitez, who by Steven Gerrard's own account confused and disoriented him. That disastrous back pass against France and his limp display against Portugal when he went off so early may well have been a consequence. At £four million a year, Eriksson looks grotesquely overpaid. Why put on as subs against Portugal a pair of plodders like Phil Neville and Owen Hargreaves?
Colossal credit goes to German's Otto Rehhagel for Greece's stupendous progress. Also to the towering centre back Traianos Dellas, not only a rook in the defence but the scorer of that goal against the Czechs. But would they have lost if Nedved hadn't been hurt, and if Jan Kohler had put away the chance so well made for him by Baros?
So the Final was a repeat of Portugal v Greece. All credit to the gallant Greeks who'd never before even won a match in a major tournament. All credit to that wily German coach Otto Rehhagel. As in the semi-final against the Czechs, the Greeks exploited to devastating effect sloppy marking on a right flank dead ball kick. Yet they didn't just mass in defence; their counter attacking could be swift and incisive. Overall, however their remarkable sucess says all too much about the state of European football.
Brian Glanville is a noted football writer.
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