Bayern are going through after their hammering of Sporting Lisbon in the first leg in Lisbon. Only question will be if Ribery starts and if he adds to his tally.
The Villareal game is a bit more tricky. Pana is very tough at home as most Greek teams are and will be even tougher to break down given their two away goals from the first leg. Gilberto and Karagounis are European veterans.
Key: Villareal keeping Pana off the scoreboard. Play like you played at Manchester and keep it tight and hope for Rossi or Pires or Nihat to nick one.
Potential surprise matchwinner: Marcos Senna off a free kick.
Observation: ex-Man United strikers do really well at Villareal – see Forlan and Rossi.
Prediction: I’m changing my mind. 1-1 with Pana going through on away goals.
While this is a toss up, I pick Spain to beat Russia. Pundits have commented on how Spain seems to have slowed down while Russia has picked up their speed and look like world beaters. Yes, Spain slowed down, but a lot of it was down to playing against the Italians and their catenaccio system of play. In fact, I would suggest that Spain needs to play at a slower tempo so as not to give Russia gaps to exploit in the Spanish half and to negate Russia’s late game fitness edge.
Forget about the first game. As I said then, Russia was in that game and if they had put away one of their early chances, it would have been a very different game at 1-1. The final scoreline is irrelevant and the Russians didn’t have Arshavin or a firing Pavlyuchenko. I believe this game will be decided by three factors. The absence of Kolodin is a big loss and one that is going to hamper the Russians’ ability to keep Villa and Torres in check. Torres is due. Another key battle is how well Ramos and Capdevilla deal with Arshavin. I think they are faster than the Dutch defenders and so should be better capable – they have also been forewarned that Arshavin is a real player. Ramos also needs to concentrate on staying home as Arshavin will be backed up by an overlapping Zhirkov on the left wing. Finally, Spain needs to put Cesc in from the start. They need his drive and two way play. If he starts instead of Iniesta, Spain have a better chance of winning the midfield battle and it will give Xavi more room.
Arragones, please listen to me. Start Cesc for Iniesta. Silva did well, so I am okay with him starting, but you need Cesc to help Senna and Xavi out.
Hiddink, I have nothing to tell you. You are the best at the international game right now. Good luck.
Pre-game prediction: Spain 2 Russia 1
Wouldn’t be surprised if this went to extra time though I doubt it will go to penalties. I just can’t believe that Spain will crash out again to a Hiddink team after the heartbreak in Korea in 2002…
Here are the links to the blogs from the first Spain v Russia matchup in group play
No Pirlo. Much as I like Aquilani, he’s a different kind of player. Maybe the way to make up for Pirlo is to start the entire Roma midfield and have De Rossi and Perrotta along with Aquilani to support a threesome of Toni, Del Piero/Cassano (I prefer Del Piero in this game) and Camoranesi. That should give Italy enough bodies in midfield and a set of younger, more dynamic midfielders who have had a good season in Serie A. All this to say that that is the only way Italy are going to be able to beat Spain. Jam up the middle of the park, play Italian catenaccio football and hope for Toni to convert a header off a deadball situation. The weakness of the Spanish team is the center of defense where Marchena and Puyol (or Albiol if Puyol is still out injured) cannot match up with Toni. I give the Italians a 30% chance of winning – and given my predictive powers in the quarters, that would guarantee them a spot in the semi final.
Spain should just continue doing what they have been doing. Dominate ball possession and rely on Torres and Villa to score goals. Italy’s defense is uncharacteristically weak – Panucci (the usual right back) is the leader in the middle and plays with Chiellini, the lowest ranked central defender in the squad (Materazzi, Cannavaro and Barzagli are all injured). Grosso is good at left back, but more known for going forward, and Zambrotta has had an average tournament. Unfortunately, for Spain, they are backed up by Buffon. If I were Arragones, I would not start Xavi and Iniesta together. I would have Senna, Cesc, Xabi Alonso and Xavi to go with Torres and Villa up front. Drop Silva and Iniesta. Xabi and Senna are good holding midfielders and will counter the Italian midfield, while Cesc is a very tough two way player and will support them at the defensive end. Cesc, Xavi and Xabi are all great passers and you are going to need all of them so the Italians can’t focus on shutting Xavi down. Silva hasn’t done much in this tournament. If you are behind, then bring on Iniesta and Silva, but otherwise, go with this lineup.
Pre-game prediction: Spain 2 Italy 1
It’s time for Torres to show the world what he has learned in England and impose himself physically on the Italian defense…