The Last Word: Russia and Croatia's success bodes well for Israel

Israel did remarkably well to stay close to the two teams in the battle for a Euro 2008 place.

jp.services2 (photo credit:)
jp.services2
(photo credit: )
Euro 2008 has only just got past its halfway stage, but it has already proved to be one of the best international tournaments in a decade. With the absence of the English, and with hardly any time to recover from the dramatic Champions League finale, there had been little hype in the build-up to the European Championships, with many analysts concerned that it could end up an uninteresting damp squib. But they have been proved wrong by the superb level of exhilarating soccer we have been treated to night after night, both in the often stunning displays by the group winners and the battles for the second-place spots in each group. The last time we were entertained like this was the 1998 World Cup in France. The event has also already taught us a vast amount about the situation in European soccer today, quashing many assumptions and confirming a number of truths which some had doubted. We knew Spain was a good, solid side, which can win in the early part of a competition. The test for the Spanish will come against Italy in the quarters on Sunday. We also knew Germany was a team which epitomized resilience, so it was satisfying to see it overcome a shaky start to confidently defeat the Austrians and move into the next stage. Turkey, however, has proved itself to many with the way it came back from the dead to defeat the Czech Republic in the game of the tournament so far. One point that has stood out over the last few days has been the quality of play by Russia and Croatia - the two teams which qualified for the Euros from Israel's group. After the Croats swept aside all opposition in the qualifying campaign under the leadership of ruthless coach Slaven Bilic, including beating Israel 4-3 in Ramat Gan and defeating England home and away, it wasn't so much of a surprise to see the team do well in the group stage. The team is tight, motivated and passes the ball well. It was not necessarily believed that Croatia would finish top of Group B with a 100 percent record after stunning the Germans last Thursday, but we knew it had the potential. Russia, however, was a different story. Guus Hiddink's side was often disappointing in qualification, and, after losing to Israel in Ramat Gan, only sneaked into the finals after England fell to Croatia at home. When Spain wiped the floor with the Russians with a 4-1 rout in the opening game of Group D last Tuesday it seemed clear that the team in red was the weakest in the tournament. But that was before super striker Andrei Arshavin returned from suspension in time for the game against Sweden on Wednesday. Suddenly Russia played delightful flowing soccer, tearing the Swedish defense apart and deservedly qualifying for the quarterfinals. The progress that Russia and Croatia have made in the tournament to date is not only proof of the quality of the teams' coaches and squads but also underlines just how well Israel did to stay in the fight for a top-two finish in its Euro 2008 qualifying group during a long and difficult campaign. Many commentators have been quick to criticize the Israeli performances and attitude, but the fact is that it lost only one of its four games against England and Russia. The Russians were portrayed as a poor quality side, and it is true to say they played far better on Wednesday than they had done for a long time. But it is still the same group of players and Israel's achievements against the Russians were commendable. As has been stressed previously in this column, Israel has every chance of making it to the 2010 World Cup with its main opponents being Switzerland and Greece, the two teams which performed worst at the Euros. The success of the Russians only serves to underline the potential which exists within the Israeli squad. Hiddink was quietly satisfied with his team on Wednesday. The Saturday night quarterfinal clash between Russia and Holland could well be a lot closer than had previously been expected. The Dutch have been absolutely wonderful all tournament, amazingly being able to top a 3-0 win over Italy with a 4-1 defeat of France. So many times we have seen a potentially brilliant Holland team fall apart due to internal arguments, but this time it has all fallen together. Hiddink's career has been one of the most impressive of any international coach, from the way he took South Korea to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup to his leadership of the Australians to the tournament four years later. But if he can prove his tactical prowess against a Dutch side which has not been in this type of form since winning the European title in West Germany 20 years ago, it will go down in history as one of the greatest ever coaching jobs. And it will also show just how well Israel did to stay close to his team in the battle for a place in this tournament. jeremylast@gmail.com