A look at Euro 2008: Day 4

One of Europe’s heavyweights delivered a convincing opening statement about its credentials, while a class moment from a class player made all the difference for one of Europe’s middleweights.

In case you missed it, here are brief recaps of today’s contests:

SPAIN 4, RUSSIA 1: Talented Valencia striker David Villa netted a hat-trick in the Euro championships for the first time since 2000 to boost Spain, one of the pre-tournament favorites, to a comfortable victory in its opening group game. Villa scored twice in the first half and added another in the second half to give Spain an unassailable 3-0 lead. Roman Pavlyuchenko pulled a goal back for the Russians, but substitute Cesc Fabregas added a fourth goal late for Spain.

SWEDEN 2, GREECE 0: A moment of absolute magic and a moment of absolute luck propelled Sweden past the defensive-minded defending champions in Group D. Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Inter Milan scored with a thunderbolt from the top of the 18-yard box in the 67th minute to break down Greece’s imperious defense. Just six minutes later, defender Petter Hansson somehow managed to bundle the ball home past Greece ‘keeper Antonis Nikopolidis to make life much more comfortable for the Swedes.

MY ANALYSIS: Was there any real question that Greece would play like it did? For the better part of 67 minutes, today’s contest between Greece and Sweden resembled something taken straight out of Greece’s Euro 2004 highlight video. Greece sat back, soaked up pressure and looked to nick a goal off a counter, a set piece or a mistake by its opposition.
That strategy has drawn heavy criticism from many on this planet. While I tend to find myself on that side of the coin, there’s no denying that such tactics yielded a European championship for Greece four years ago, and you can’t blame coach Otto Rehhagel, nicknamed ‘King Otto’, for maximizing his team’s strengths.
The logic going into this tournament was that, unlike 2004, somebody this time around would have the quality to break down Greece. And 67 minutes in today, Ibrahimovic provided exactly that to boost Sweden’s chances of getting through to the knockout stage while severally denting Greece’s chances.
In the earlier game, Spain, in my opinion, showed why it could contend for the championship and why it might not. Possessing the ball through the middle of the park very well, Spain provided ample opportunities for Villa and star striker Fernando Torres of Liverpool. And clearly the Spanish possess quite a bit of team chemistry.
Going the other way, however, they also showed that they’re clearly not the best outfit defensively. Carlos Puyol struggled all season for Barcelona in my opinion and doesn’t look at all like his former imperious self, yet there he was at the heart of Spain’s defense. Against the quality attacking players Spain will see in the latter stages of this tournament, the backline must play much better than it did today to give the Spanish a chance.

TODAY’S STAR MAN: David Villa, Spain. Not only did the hat-trick hero bag three goals in a European Championship game for the first time since Netherlands legend Patrick Kluivert in 2000, he also helped create Spain’s fourth goal. As ESPN commentator Derek Rae pointed out, Villa probably wouldn’t have started against the Russians had coach Luis Aragones not shuffled his formation around to include a second striker, which was Villa. Talk about making the most out of an opportunity when it presents itself.

TODAY’S TOP GOAL: Zlatan Ibrahimovic vs. Greece. Pure class, this one. Though he hadn’t scored an International goal since October of 2005, his quality in Serie A has been there for all to see, and he scored a peach of a goal to break down Greece. From a throw-in down the right channel, Ibrahimovic plays a give-and-go with legend Henrik Larsson, who flicks the ball into the path of Ibrahimovic just outside the 18-yard box. From there, the Inter Milan star smashes the ball with his right foot into the upper 90. As somebody on BBC’s 606 message boards asked, ‘What on earth is THAT goal doing in THIS match?’

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