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David Villa and Fernando Torres may be the most dynamic front pairing at UEFA EURO 2008™, but Spain coach Luis Aragonés wants them to add another trick to their repertoire by defending from the front in Thursday's semi-final.
Although the pre-match excitement has been about the attacking potential on show in this repeat of the Group D opener which produced five goals, Aragonés chose to underline three times what he requires from his strike partnership against Guus Hiddink's team. "I want to see them pressing the central defenders, not just shadowing them. I want proper, high-energy pressing and I want them to rob the ball from Russia's defenders as early as possible," said Aragonés, before adding: "I've rarely seen a team break from box to box as quickly and in as high numbers as Russia."
Aragonés will hope the fact Russia central defender Denis Kolodin, along with midfielder Dmitri Torbinski, is suspended will unsettle a defence which has only conceded once in three victories since letting in four against Spain. It is a remarkable turnaround, one even Hiddink admits to being amazed by. "That 4-1 defeat was the first game in a big tournament for many of my players," he said. "I'm amazed how much progress we've made since. That day we fell into the big trap of giving gifts to our opponents, but after a couple of analytical sessions, then work in training, everything was fixed. I'm deeply proud of three things our progress should achieve: putting Russia back in its place within European football, showing the world modern football can be beautiful and taking this group of players on a long footballing journey from where they began."
Losing in international semi-finals is a thorn in Hiddink's side – his Netherlands and Korea Republic teams went down in the last four of the 1998 and 2002 FIFA World Cup semi-finals respectively – although both Russia and Spain have powerful records at this stage. Since becoming an independent nation, this is Russia's best performance at a UEFA European Championship but as part of the Soviet Union they won four semi-finals in the competition, only falling to Italy in 1968 on the toss of a coin after a 0-0 draw. Spain have won their two challenges at this stage, en route to winning the tournament in 1964 and then again in 1984 on penalties against Denmark. "You can win, you can lose but if you promote the concept of defending well and attacking with conviction when you have the ball then this is how modern football must be played," Hiddink said.
It is precisely that offensive style which Aragonés wants Spain to block and then profit from. "We need to nullify their virtues and then punish their weaknesses. We won't man-mark Andrei Arshavin, he's simply one of five top-class players Russia possess. We won't change our style." There will, however, be a change in the colour of Spain's shirts from their famous red to yellow. "I don't like this new colour, personally," said the superstitious 69-year-old. "But so long as I don't have to wear it, the players can. Anyway, it's not yellow, it's mustard." With that the Wise Man of Hortaleza left his audience chuckling and headed for his date with destiny.
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