Monday, June 16, 2008

Czechs Bounced Etc

Slowly but surely, the records are being broken. It feels as if, one by one, new legends are being created on an almost daily basis at Euro 2008, and last night we had a new one to add to the list: the greatest comeback by an international team in the finals of a competition. To be honest about it all, the first seventy-five minutes of last night's match between Turkey and the Czech Republic were fairly ordinary. The Czechs had gone two goals up through a factory-fit header from Jan Koller in the first half and an acrobatic slide-cum-stab from Plasil just after the hour mark. So far, so good. Apart from that, it was so-so, with both teams limited to a couple of long range efforts and almost accidental looking shots at goal each. With fifteen minutes to play, though, Turkey ripped the script up and threw it away, replacing it with one that the writers of "Escape To Victory" would have replaced for being too far fetched.

First up, Turan popped up with a shot from the edge of the area that beat Petr Cech at his near post. It's possible to absolve Cech of any blame for this goal, a well-hit low shot from the edge of the penalty area that skidded on very wet grass. There were less forgiving circumstances seven minutes later, though. Hamit's cross was inexplicably dropped by Cech, allowing a dumfounded Nihat to roll the ball into the empty goal. I've watched this goal about fifty times over now, and I still can't see how this happened. The ball wasn't spinning, and there was no great pace on the cross. The ball just seemed to bounce up and out of his hands. The debates have been raging over whether this means that Cech can be described as the Emporer's New Clothes - not the fantastic goalkeeper that we all thought that he was. I'm inclined to think that we'll find out whether he's a great goalkeeper over the next few months. It's the reaction to the mistake rather than the mistake itself that will determine whether he retains his reputation or not. He didn't have much time to dwell upon it. Two minutes later, Nihat was put through and he drove the ball in off the underside of the crossbar to win the match for Turkey. Even then, the tension rose still higher, as the Turkish goalkeeper Volkan was sent off for shoving Jan Koller to the ground. No mean feat in itself, if you stop and think about it for a second. With all three of their substitutes already used, Tuncay went in goal for the last couple of minutes, but he wasn't tested and Turkey hung on to win 3-2 and book their extraordinary passage into the last eight of the competition. Full marks also, by the way, to Steve Wilson of the BBC, whose commentary on the match added to the breathless, disbelieving air of it all. He would be a much more suitable replacement for John Motson as the BBC's main man than Jonathan Pearce.

The other match between Switzerland and Portugal in Basel was, ultimately, a meaningless match for both teams, and acted as a send off for Kobi Kuhn, who has now quit the Swiss coaching job. His wife's serious illness throughout the competition and the quiet dignity with which he coped with the twin pressures that faced him provided an important reality check for those in the media who talk about the all-importance of winning football matches. The Portuguese dropped eight players from their previous match, and Chelsea supporters may have been looking nervously at the effect of such widespread squad rotation. Switzerland won 2-0 thanks to two goals from Hakan Yakin and thoroughly deserved their win. They played reasonably well in all three of their group matches, and deserved better than to be knocked out of the tournament with a match still to play. Regarding Portugal, I would question again the wisdom of any coach that ends a winning run in order to rest players. I could be wrong on this, but it strikes me that a winning streak is an exceptionally difficult thing to build up - will Portugal simply be able to able to pick the baton that they have dropped and start running with it again? We shall see.


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