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Assuming the guy wasn't actually visiting from Istanbul or Moscow, he probably would have replied, "Are you talking about the same Russian team that lost 3-0 to England in qualifying, and the same Turks who tied those powerhouses Moldova and Malta in the run-up to Euro? Because if so, I'll give you the same odds I offered people on Rocco Mediate in the U.S. Open."
As surreal as it might sound, Turkey and Russia -- who came into Euro at 40-1 and 28-1 odds, respectively -- are now just one more seismic upset apiece away from playing each other for the right to hoist the trophy. Of course, the teams that stand in their way, Germany and Spain, don't exactly have glass shins, as they both proved in their quarterfinal victories. The Germans had too much brawn and will for Portugal's Lords of the Dance, and the Spanish overcame their long tradition of underachieving to outlast Italy on penalty kicks.
Of the two semifinal matchups, Germany appears to have the more direct route to the final. After more last-minute heroics against Croatia, it seems the Turks might never run out of miracles, but they are running perilously short on bodies, since a trio of their most influential players (Tuncay Sanli, Emre Asik and Arda Turan) are suspended for Wednesday's game while leading scorer Nihat Kahveci is out due to injury. Coach Fatih Terim's squad is so thin -- he has just 15 players to choose from -- that it could be mistaken for an Olsen twin. Still, would anyone who has seen the Turks and Russians defy all expectations during this tournament be foolish enough to bet against them now? Both countries have put on a display of soccer skills and determination that has been as thrilling as it has been surprising.
|Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon gave Fernando Torres the Zidane treatment.|
|And Buffon put David Villa in a sleeper hold.|
But if Turkey's upset of Croatia was epic, it was no more jaw-dropping than Russia's 3-1 dismantling of Holland, which was everyone's favorite to dazzle its way to the Euro title. Even if you suspected that the heretofore untested Dutch defense was a little dodgy, you still expected the speed and flair of their vaunted counterattack to leave scorch marks on the physical but less nimble Russians.
Playing with a creativity and technical fluidity that must have made the Dutch think they were looking at a reflection of themselves in the mirror, Russia attacked, attacked again and attacked some more. The two architects of this rebranded Russian juggernaut were their Dutch-born coach Guus Hiddink, who guided Holland to the semifinals of the 1998 World Cup, and the 27-year-old Arshavin, who is a member in good standing of Vladimir Putin's party, has authored two books and released a song on the eve of the tournament.
|But Spain survived to play Russia, led by Guus Hiddink, a man not afraid to give his own players the death grip.|
Whether Russia can continue its smooth ground assault against a Spanish defense that got the job done whenever it had to against Italy -- which was not very often, since the Azzurri basically played for penalty kicks from the first minute -- remains to be seen. After all, Spain handled the Russians with ease in their opening round matchup, coasting to a 4-1 victory -- but Russia was without Andrei The Great, who was serving a two-game ban, and Russia is a different team with Arshavin at the controls. One word of advice for watching this game: Keep a defibrillator handy.
David Hirshey is the executive editor of HarperCollins Publishers. He has been covering soccer for 30 years and played himself (almost convincingly) in the soccer documentary "Once In A Lifetime." Roger Bennett lives in New York but still is scarred by this. Hirshey and Bennett are at work on the forthcoming "ESPN's Ultimate World Cup Guide." The two will be writing about Euro 2008 Monday through Friday on Page 2, unless their astrologer tells them not to.