Late bloomers Turkey win it at the last - again
Turkey are in the semi-finals of Euro 2008 after a dogged, at times cagey, and ultimately thrilling victory on penalties against Croatia in Vienna. Again the Turks have proved themselves masters of the long game. Dominated for periods in normal time, they just kept coming - never better illustrated than in extra time when Semih Senturk equalised Ivan Klasnic's 119th minute goal with one in the 120th. This kind of sapping, tense tight game was probably the only thing missing so far from an enthralling tournament. We got it here. Vienna will be a noisy place tonight.
As expected, Slaven Bilic started with the same Croatia team that had beaten Germany so impressively in Klagenfurt, using Niko Krankjar as a drifting second striker behind Ivica Olic. Turkey have suffered terribly with injuries and suspensions. Bilic's opposite number Fatih Terim had just 15 fit players here. With Mehmet Aurelio and both first-choice central defenders ruled out Terim sent his team out to flood the midfield.
And so they did. In the first half Turkey were a suffocating red blanket across the middle. Hamit Altinop, nominally on the right, tucked right into the centre when Turkey had the ball. At their own re-starts the Turks set themselves up as though they were playing on a five a-side pitch. What with all the humidity, it was hard to breath just watching it.
Terim succeeded: Croatia's trio of nifty, quick-footed playmakers - Krankjar Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric - were unable to find the angles they had exploited against Germany. What joy they found in the first half came when Modric could feed passes into the spaces behind the Turkish full-backs, in particular for the excellent left-back Danijel Pranjic.
It was on a break down the right that Modric touched a wonderful pass into the path of Dario Srna. His ball into the middle was flipped on to the bar by Ivica Olic, the rebound coming back too quickly for Krankjar to guide his header. Croatia's most obvious weakness has been their lack of a top finisher (without poor old Eduardo). Olic runs his legs down to the knees every game. But he does often forget to put the ball in the net. In the last minute of normal time here he arrived first on the end of Modric's low cross and shot weakly straight at Rustu. The game should have been over right there.
This was a challenge for Bilic. Germany had been ambushed by his re-jigged midfield. Terim had come up with an effective riposte. To his credit, Bilic did try and change the game in the second half. His full-backs Pranjic and Corluka pulled out on to the touchline, tugging the red blanket tight at either end. It helped open up space for Krankjar to run on to Modric's touch and toe-poke a shot that Rustu flopped on top of, his first proper save coming in the 55th minute.
Turkey remained happy to sit and stifle and wait, hopeful of the single chance that might decide this match. The upshot was that for much of the second half only one team looked like they were trying to score a goal. The most constructive work came on Croatia's left between Pranjic and Rakitic. One nimble dribble by the 20-year-old led to a free-kick on the edge of the area, from which Srna's shot was palmed aside by a flying Rustu.
It took extra time for Turkey to brighten, Terim's men producing their customary late surge. Cautious for much of the 90 minutes, suddenly Turkey were coming forward with purpose. The substitute Ugar Borul skipped on to Nihat's lay-off and fired in a cross-shot from close range. Semih Senturk shot powerfully just over. The Turks really do get better as a game goes on. If they played for three days they'd look like 1970-vintage Brazil.
As they had against Austria in similar humidity, the Croatians tired. Penalties began to loom horribly, even as the Turks pushed their opponents back, at last showing some of the high tempo attacking interplay we saw against the Czech Republic. In fact Croatia were hanging on a bit when they scored out of the blue in the 119th minute.
Modric chased a diagonal pass toward the right byline only to find that Rustu - Nikopalaedis-style - had come haring out of his goal after him. Modric turned and placed the ball on the sub Ivan Klasnick's head to score. Uproar. Bilic on the pitch pumping his fist. Game over, surely.
But no! Semturk's belted shot into the top corner a minute later reduced the stadium to head-scratching emotional turmoil. And back with the penalties we were. It seemed a little cruel on the energetic and committed Modric that he should miss Croatia's first, putting it wide of the post. The same went for Rakitic, who put one past the other post. The two most progressive players in the 90 minutes failed at the last here.
But penalties are a test of nerve and stamina at the end of a night like this and you had to admire the sheer guts of the Turkish players, not just in their penalty-taking, but their late momentum in extra time. There was an air of inevitability by the time Rustu palmed away Mladen Petric's kick to seal a 3-1 shoot-out win.
Germany await a Turkey team who will be strengthened by returning players, but weakened by the loss of three who are suspended after tonight's rash of yellow cards. You sense Turkey's run has to come to an end at some point. Probably in Basle next time out. But you know they'll take it right to the end.