The Beautiful Game
Last-Minute Heroics at Euro 2008
Thanks Giving Day: Turkey wins 3-2
Sky Sports' Andy Gray became my new favorite soccer pundit during the second half of Sunday's Euro 2008 clash between Turkey and the Czech Republic - which the Turks won 3-2 after a miraculous second half comeback from two goals down - when he made the spot-on observation, "This is what makes this game so great. Even if you're a neutral, like us [Gray is Scottish and his fellow broadcaster Adrian Healy is an Englishman - and neither England nor Scotland qualified for this year's European championships], you can't tell me you're not excited by this. You can't tell me you don't find this as entertaining as anything in sports. That's what makes this such a beautiful game. A team can totally dominate another and yet it can come down to the final minute. You really can't afford to miss a single play because it can turn in a second." Or something to that effect.
This was a big all-or-nothing game, as both Turkey and the Czech Republic needed a win to finish second in their group behind Portugal and advance to the Euro 2008 quarter-finals. And, as usual, Gray got it just right. After all, I had been watching the Czech Republic dominate Turkey for the first 75 minutes, going up 2-0 after a controversial Czech counter-attack (the Turks were down a man due to an injury and claimed the referee wouldn't let their man back in the game in time) - and the lead could have been 3-0 if Jan Koller hadn't shanked a breakway strike right before that! The 6-foot 7-inch giant Koller had scored on a powerful header at the 34-minute mark in the first half before Jaroslav Plasil's brilliant one-touch put the Czechs up by two goals at the 62-minute mark.
Turkey looked to be booking early passage back to Istanbul at this point, yet the Turks never gave up, keeping the ball in the Czech half on the field for the remainder of the game as they continued to attack the Czech's right-side defense for shot after shot. Even before right back Hamit Altintop (Bayern Munich) fed 20-year-old Galatasaray star Arda Turan (the winning goal-scoring hero of Turkey's 2-1 come-from-behind victory over Switzerland) to close the gap to 2-1 after 75 minutes, Andy Gray was complimenting the Turks on their relentless attacking football. "That's what you have to do at this point," he said. "You push everyone up and you go for it and ask who wants to be a hero."
Though it looked like Turkey's run was done when defender Senturk missed a wide-open header, the Turks kept coming. Finally, the world's best goalkeeper, Chelsea's Peter Cech was to blame for Turkey's second goal when, in the 87th minute, he spilled another Altintop cross right unto the alert foot of Turk striker Nihat Kahveci (Villareal), who made it 2-2. Admittedly it was raining and Cech didn't get a good grip on the ball but the world's best keeper is supposed to get those! Which only reenforces Gray's point about how "anything can happen" right up until the referee's final whistle.
Surely at this point it looked like the game was heading to penalty kicks to decide who would advance in this winner-take-all contest. But a scant two minutes later, Nihat beat the Czech's offside trap to receive yet another ball from Altintop (who had three assists on the day) and sent a brilliant right-foot curler in off the underside of the crossbar. 3-2 Turkey. Three goals in 15 minutes to accomplish The Great Escape. A comeback the likes of which I hadn't seen since Liverpool's 2006 Champion's League Final comeback against A.C. Milan - in Istanbul of all places!
Turkey even survived injury-time with Middlesbrough forward Tuncay Sanli in goal after goalkeeper Volkan Demirel was sent-off for foolishly pushing Koller to the ground in a Zinedine Zidane moment of stupidity (he'll now miss Turkey's quarter-final match against Croatia).
This was Turkey's second straight come-from-behind victory, but it easily eclipsed their last-minute 2-1 win over Switzerland given the competition and the win-or-go-home significance of the game.
Sweden and the Pain in Spain
Just two days earlier on June 14, Sweden felt just liked the dejected Czechs when David Villa capitalized on a defensive mix-up to score in added time, giving Spain a 2-1 win over Sweden that earned it a place in the quarter-finals of the European Championship. It was another game that looked like it was going to end in a well-deserved 1-1 draw on goals by Spain's Fernando "El Nino" Torres (Liverpool) and Sweden's Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Inter Milan), but like Andy Gray observed, it's not over until it's over and all it takes is one long ball in the 93rd minute, a missed tackle and the efficient finishing of Valencia star striker David Villa (Euro 2008's leading goal scorer with four after just two games) to give Spain a last-minute win and a perfect six points earned out of six possible. Ole!