International Soccer
Soccer's miracle man is at it again

By Tim Keeble, Soccer Editor

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Russia's 3-1 win over the Netherlands in the quarterfinals of Euro 2008 on Saturday was viewed as one of the most stunning results of the competition.

The Dutch entered the match having won all three of their group stage contests in the vaunted "Group of Death", doing so by a combined score of 9-1. They were the most impressive side in the tournament up to that point, but were outplayed by a Russian squad that needed to beat Sweden in its final match of the group stage just to get into the quarterfinals.

Sure it was surprising, but should we really be that shocked that a Guus Hiddink-coached team defied the odds and overachieved in a major tournament?

After all, Hiddink has made a habit of doing just that over the past 10 years.

He began with his native Dutch, helping the Orange advance all the way to the semifinals of the 1998 World Cup. And while taking the Netherlands to the last four might not qualify as a major accomplishment, his first real reclamation project four years later certainly does.

He took 2002 World Cup co-hosts South Korea on a magical ride to the semifinals, achieving idol status along the way. Under Hiddink, the Koreans won a group that contained Portugal, Poland and the United States before knocking off Italy and Spain in the knockout round.

Under Guus Hiddink, Russia has developed an unshakeable confidence.
Four years after that, Hiddink took on another big challenge, this time leading Australia - a country with about as much historical soccer success as Tahiti - into the Round of 16. Although the Socceroos were bounced by eventual champions Italy in that round, it took a controversial 90th- minute penalty kick to get it done.

That brings us to Russia, a country that has not advanced past the group stage in a major tournament since it was the Soviet Union in 1988.

Under Hiddink, this team has developed an unshakeable confidence, and despite being the youngest team in the entire tournament, has also displayed a surprising amount of poise in the face of adversity.

The young Russians were crushed 4-1 by Spain in their opening match, but rebounded nicely to defeat Greece 1-0. That set up a must-win contest with Sweden, which Russia dominated thanks in large part to the presence of Andrey Arshavin, a player who almost didn't make the trip.

Arshavin was sent off in the last five minutes of Russia's final Euro 2008 qualifier, earning himself a two-match suspension. Many managers would have left a player in that situation at home, opting for a man who was eligible for all three group games, but Hiddink knew how valuable Arshavin was to Russia, and his gamble paid off.

The 27-year-old Arshavin has scored two goals and assisted on another in his two games, and after leading Zenit St. Petersburg to the UEFA Cup title in May, he has also earned himself plenty of interest from Europe's top clubs.

"Arshavin has tremendous skills," Hiddink said. "He knows how to dribble at the defense. Defenders can run with him but they cannot really attack him. It is what nature gave him."

From his role in the midfield, Arshavin has completely upgraded Russia's attack, transforming it from a unit that scored two goals in its first two games to one that tallied five times in its next two matches.

Russia looked to be on its way to the semifinals as they took a 1-0 lead into the final five minutes against the Dutch on Saturday, but a late equalizer forced extra time, something that usually unnerves a young team in that situation.

"The Dutch were just dangerous at set pieces and it was a blow to concede the equalizer but more of an achievement after conceding that goal," Hiddink said. "In extra time I told the players to go and look forward for a goal as they were as tired as we were. I also told them to have mental strength and they responded perfectly."

That response, which consisted of two goals in the 30-minute extra time, can be credited as much to the team's mental approach as their physical gifts, a fact that is not lost on the Russian players.

"Under Hiddink, there is much more freedom on the team and I mean the kind of freedom you get off the pitch," Arshavin told Uefa.com. "In training, you must do as you are told, but outside the training ground no one controls us any more. No one imposes their requirements on us. It was different before."

Unlike many previous Russian managers, who have felt pressure from the media and government, Hiddink seems to be above it all, bringing a calming presence to the team, even in the most trying of times.

Before even getting to Austria and Switzerland, Russia had to navigate its way through a tough qualifying group that included Croatia and England. The Russians trailed England 1-0 at halftime of a critical qualifying match, but according to Arshavin, there was never any doubt in the manager's mind.

"In contrast to many Russian managers, Hiddink never panics and knows exactly what he wants. "The best example was the England match. At halftime he was calm and business-like. Guus said we would have the chance to turn the game around, as if he already knew."

Another aspect of the game that Hiddink has changed is the approach toward the makeup of the team. According to veteran midfielder Igor Semshov, Hiddink's trust in his players, particularly the younger ones, has been the biggest difference in Russia's success.

"We have a European mentality around the national team now, built on trust," Semshov told Uefa.com. "The coach trusts the players. He selects youngsters at every opportunity and bravely uses them in games. He is not afraid of responsibility. For the younger players, the experience of working with Hiddink is particularly useful, especially if they want to play in Europe. The coach is showing us what the top clubs demand."

For the 61-year-old Hiddink, this will be the third consecutive underdog that he has taken to unexpected heights, and you can bet that downtrodden teams everywhere will be bidding hard for his services, in hopes of receiving his Midas touch.

Hiddink has yet to turn water into wine, but if he is able to guide Russia past Spain and into the finals on Thursday, you can be sure that he will have a whole new group of followers.



Comments? Criticism? Applause?
Contact Tim Keeble at tkeeble@sportsnetwork.com
Contact Brian Westfall at bwestfall@sportsnetwork.com

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