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Spain must contain Arshavin

Russia forward has built quite a reputation and he could be key to determine who plays Germany in Euro final.

June 26, 2008|Grahame L. Jones | Times Staff Writer

It all comes down to a single question, really.

Can the Wise Man of Hortaleza devise a plan that will foil the Soon-to-be-Millionaire from St. Petersburg?

Today, in the penultimate act of the drama that has been soccer's 13th European Championship, Spain plays Russia in Vienna in the second semifinal of Euro 2008.

It's winner-take-all, and what the winner gets is a match against tournament favorite and three-time champion Germany, which on Wednesday defeated Turkey, 3-2, on a 90th-minute goal by Philipp Lahm to advance to Sunday's final.

But back to the wise man.

White-haired and wizened Jose Luis Aragones Suarez Martinez looks the part of a coach who has accumulated decades of hard-earned wisdom. He has coached eight clubs in Spain, most notably Atletico Madrid, where as a player he was regarded as one of the finest goal scorers in the 1960s and '70s.

He has had charge of the Spanish national team since 2004 and is considered cantankerous to a fault. It was while with Atletico that Aragones was dubbed the Wise Man of Hortaleza after the Madrid neighborhood where he was born almost 70 years ago.

Andrei Arshavin, on the other hand, turned 27 only last month. A virtual unknown outside Russia until this year, he has made such an impact at Euro 2008 and, before that, in leading his hometown team, Zenit St. Petersburg, to its UEFA Cup triumph, that top clubs throughout Europe are now scrambling for his signature.

Russia's team has plenty of talented players, but it has been Arshavin, more than any other player, who has captured the imagination of fans at Euro 2008. The praise has come from all quarters.

"His introduction to the Russian team has been like a sparkle of magic," said former Scotland coach Andy Roxburgh, who is assessing the technical quality of the play for UEFA. "He almost seems to have ignited them. He has made a good team even better since he has come in."

Said Russia Coach Guus Hiddink: "He knows how to dribble at defenders so that they can run with him but can't attack him. Nature gave him that gift."

Hiddink almost left Arshavin off his roster altogether because the player was ineligible for Russia's first two games because of a suspension. In the two games Arshavin has played, he has been superb. He has speed, a deft first touch, exceptional vision and a soccer brain that sees several moves ahead.

Stopping Arshavin, while at the same time trying to contain the speed that the Russians attack with down both flanks, will be the single biggest problem facing Spain.

"He is a good player but not the only danger for Russia, who are a team who have progressed and have gained confidence," Aragones said.

Spain has talent, too, with plenty of firepower in the likes of tournament leading goal scorer David Villa and Fernando Torres, along with the guile and top-flight experience of such midfielders as Andres Iniesta, Xavi and Cesc Fabregas.

The Spaniards, whose only European title came in 1964, crushed Russia, 4-1, in the first round, but Russia was without Arshavin then.

Aragones says he is cautiously confident.

"I want my players to be convinced they can win because those teams that have that conviction usually do," he said.

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Germany Coach Joachim "Jogi" Loew acknowledged that his team was lucky to reach Sunday's final after playing a sluggish game against Turkey but still managing a 3-2 win.

"In the last few minutes we were trembling, but we were lucky enough to score in the 90th minute," Loew said.

The Turks grabbed the lead on Ugur Boral's 22nd-minute goal, but Germany tied it up three minutes later on Bastian Schweinsteiger's strike. Germany then went ahead when Miroslav Klose rose high to head home a cross in the 79th minute, but Turkey drew level when Sehmi Senturk scored with less than four minutes left in regulation.

Lahm's winner came in the final minute and, as Loew said, "We were pretty convinced then that they wouldn't be able to come back" with a late goal for the fourth match in a row.

Jones reported from Los Angeles.

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grahame.jones@latimes.com

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ON THE WEB

If Germany wants a return to the joy, someone should call Juergen Klinsmann quickly. Go to latimes.com/soccer.

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