Anyone who believed the UEFA EURO 2004™ party was restricted to the streets and stadiums of Lisbon and Porto could have done worse than to witness Spain's encounter with Russia in Faro-Loulé.
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With all the media hype, it would have been easy to think that the only game of the day featured hosts Portugal and their opponents Greece. But these two sides had other ideas as they vied for the early supremacy in the second game of Group A. It was Spain who eventually ran out the winners thanks to Juan Carlos Valerón's strike. But Russia played their part in a match which was tainted by the late dismissal of Russian defender Roman Sharonov.
Sea of colour
Spectacles such as these are often a tad rusty on the opening night, but even though the Portuguese had fluffed their lines against an organised Greece side in the matinée performance, Spain put on a performance which, at times, made you believe this could finally be the year they shed their tag of the nearly men.
The festivities had begun long before the football with the Loulé carnival, which burst into life at midday. But as the clocked ticked down on the tournament's curtain raiser it was the opening game which took centre stage on the screens in the centre of town. Then, lured by the prospect of witnessing some of Europe's finest technicians such as Aleksandr Mostovoi and Raúl González, the carnival was transferred from the beaches and bars to the Algarve's spectacular new stadium.
Hours before kick-off, the stadium was already awash with colour as 14,000 Spanish and 8,000 Russians prepared themselves ahead of their footballing duel. As the teams warmed up, the noise from the Spanish fans was nothing short of deafening. But the Russians soon got into the swing of what was becoming a captivating festival of football.
Then at 19.45 local time, the attention was switched to the pitch where an absorbing contest began to unfold. It was Spain who dominated the early exchanges of the match. Fernando Morientes' aerial prowess caused the depleted Russian defence all sorts of problems as Spain's wing men - Man of the Match Vicente Rodríguez and Joseba Etxeberria - worked tirelessly down the flanks to carve out that crucial opening.
It seemed only a matter of time before the Spanish side's invigorating football would reap its reward but Sergei Ovchinnikov's heroics in the Russian goal twinned with some cavalier finishing left the Spaniards with nothing to show for their efforts in the first half. In fact, Russia might well have entered the dressing room one goal to the good, after Dmitri Alenichev skipped past two challenges only to be denied by the ever-improving Iker Casillas.
But it was Spain who deservedly took the lead in the 60th minute after an inspired substitution from Iñaki Sáez. A disheartened Morientes made way for an eager looking Valerón and within 36 seconds the substitute had drilled in from eight metres after Carles Puyol's right-wing centre.
Not only did Valerón's goal send the Spanish fans into a frenzy, it also appeared to take the pressure off the players who suddenly began to play the kind of football one would expect from a squad filled with so many gifted individuals. The second goal never came but Spain, whose next match pits them against fellow victors Greece, did enough to suggest they are good enough to win Group A. For the Russians, however, the inquisition starts here - with four days until they meet hosts Portugal .
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