How David Villa’s hat-trick vs Russia at Euro 2008 kick-started Spain’s golden era

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The opening game of a major international tournament offers teams the chance to put a marker down, to show that they are serious contenders.

On the flip side, it can also go horribly wrong, draining confidence from players and all their hopeful fans watching back at home. It helps if you have history on your side, past experiences to fall back on. Yet heading into Euro 2008, Spain didn’t have that.

The proud footballing nation won the second-ever European Championships in 1964, but only needed to win two games to achieve that. Without pouring cold water on that triumph, it had become a tougher tournament to win in the years that followed, and Spain had continuously fallen short of glory.

They did reach the 1984 final but were swatted aside by Michel Platini’s France in the showpiece event, and in the five European Championships after that run to the final, they failed to make it past the last eight.

Spanish supporters had to endure decades of mediocrity. Would Euro 2008 be any different?

Perhaps it would be. Of Spain’s final 16 games in the build-up to the tournament, they won 14 and drew the other two. This was the form of a championship-winning team.

There always has to be an issue on the eve of the first game, though. Things can’t simply run smoothly. On this occasion, there were concerns over Spain’s strikers.

Prior to taking on Russia, right-back Alvaro Arbeloa was quoted by Reuters as saying: “It is clear that the national team has a style of playing that does not best suit him or really allow him to shine,” when talking about Fernando Torres.

He had a point. Torres had just scored 24 league goals for Liverpool in 2007/08, but he had only found the net twice for the national team since September 2006.

Then there was David Villa. The Valencia forward had missed Spain’s final warm-up match and there were doubts about his condition heading into the tournament. Manager Luis Aragones tried to ease these worries when he told Reuters: “If he (Villa) is fit, we will play with two men up front”, but it was far from an ideal situation for the veteran coach to deal with when coming up against a Russian team led by Guus Hiddink that had knocked England out in qualifying.

An agonising wait lay in store for Spanish fans but when the team sheets were announced, they were handed a boost. Villa had made it. He was starting alongside Torres, as Aragones stuck to his word and played the pair together. Now they needed to perform.

The early signs weren’t particularly positive. Torres cut inside from the left flank, like he had done hundreds of times for Liverpool, but his shot drifted harmlessly wide. Villa’s first effort was even worse. After collecting a raking pass from Sergio Ramos, he scuffed a half-volley into the stands.

The best strikers don’t let their heads drop, though. In the 20th minute, Torres and Villa were in the thick of the action once more. The former nicked the ball off Russian defender Denis Kolodin and raced through on goal. He could have taken a shot himself, but instead he unselfishly poked the ball into the path of Villa, who could hardly miss. And he didn’t. Spain’s front men were up and running.

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The first goal in a game can settle the nerves of the winning team. In this match, Spain had hardly finished celebrating before they were almost pegged back. Looking for an immediate response, Russia aimed a cross into the box which trickled across the six-yard box into the path of Konstantin Zyryanov. The midfielder struck his shot well but it rattled against the post and stayed out. Luck was on Spain’s side this time.

At the other end, Torres was having his own personal battle with Russia’s goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev. Twice he hit the target; twice he was denied. The ball just would not go in for him. If Spain were going to double their lead, they were going to have to rely on someone else. Once again, Villa stepped up.

Dribbling into the final third, Andres Iniesta lifted his head to see Villa peeling off the last defender. As he would do on countless occasions in the years to come, Iniesta threaded a pass through the eye of a needle, and Villa slotted the ball past the onrushing Akinfeev. With that goal coming on the stroke of half time, Spain were in cruise control and Villa was flying. Could he get his hat-trick?

With 15 minutes remaining, he answered that question emphatically. Picking up the ball deep inside Russian territory, he expertly twisted past Roman Shirokov before dispatching his shot into the net. From being a doubt to start the game just hours before kick-off, Villa had not only played but been the decisive figure in the match.

Roman Pavlyuchenko pulled a goal back late on for Hiddink’s men, and there was even time for Cesc Fabregas to round off a 4-1 victory with a late header despite clearly being offside. But even poor officiating could not detract from Villa’s dazzling display.

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Speaking after the game, Villa explained why he celebrated his third goal with the substituted Torres. As quoted by The New York Sun, Villa said of Torres: “He had a very important game and he is a key player to us, so I wanted to dedicate that third one to him”.

Meanwhile, Aragones paid tribute to the duo, stating: “The Spanish team has the luck of having players that can score. It could be Villa today or Torres tomorrow”.

He would be proved correct, as Torres went on to net the winner in the final against Germany less than three weeks later.

But this night belonged to Villa. He had set the tone for the rest of the tournament and kick-started Spain’s era of dominance.

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