|Even though I tipped Spain to win Euro 2008 before the tournament began, I have to admit the manner in which they overcame Russia surprised me. The Russians were a team riding a wave, reaching their peak and other performance-related clichés. They were gathering so much winning momentum and confidence that there was a good chance that Guus Hiddink's youngsters would sweep Spain aside and provide Germany with a few restless nights before they met in the final.
But the Russian wave crashed early and their oxygen ran out before they got to the summit. Spain, on the other hand, took their game to another level which even their 100 percent record in the tournament couldn't have prepared us for.
Both Spain and Russia had shown such quality throughout the tournament that the draw of this semi-final alone was enough to prompt huge excitement. Spain flew out of the blocks in an effort not to disappoint and Fernando Torres and David Villa set about giving the Russian defense a torrid time. Russia barely had time to catch their breath.
Then Spain endured some bad luck which led to a dramatic sea change in the match. David Villa, the goal scoring star of this Spain side at Euro 2008, pulled up with a thigh problem and had to be replaced by Cesc Fabregas. The diminuitive Arsenal midfielder, so often left on the bench in Luis Aragones' favored formation, set about giving a masterclass which paid incredible dividends for Spain after the break.
Fabregas finally showed what he could do. Once Xavi Hernandez had put Spain 1-0 up on 50 minutes, the little man began to run the game. Spain's second came from a superb Cesc pass which Daniel Guiza lifted over Russia keeper Akinfeev on 73 minutes and then played David Silva in for an easy third with eight minutes to play.
In between the goals, Fabregas pulled the strings of a Spain full of invention and attacking verve. It was the kind of display that Russia had shown in the quarter-final against the Dutch. Spain were so devastating that Russia were overwhelmed and barely troubled Iker Casillas in the Spanish goal. Russia never threatened to produce the attacking firepower which had made them such an attractive wildcard and Andrei Arshavin was disappointingly anonymous throughout. And while Casillas was forced to save Dmitry Sychev's header with three minutes to go, Spain could have made it four if Guiza had beaten Akinfeev at the death.
Now Spain meet Germany in the final. Before last night's performance, the Germans may have preferred to face the Spanish, given their style of play. While Russia provided little or no indication as to what the hell they were going to do, Spain could be relied upon to play a system. Systems can be countered, even formational changes can be met with a Plan B. The Russians seemed to - very effectively - make it up as they went along, which would have made them a very difficult opponent.
But after seeing Spain execute their plan to the letter and with Fabregas staking a claim as the man to direct the play in the final, Germany may be wondering if they have any way of cancelling out a team which now has a very good chance of putting those 44 years of hurt behind them.