The final: Holland vs USSR. They already played once and it was very entertaining match, so a new delight was expected. 50-50 chances, although the memory of the Soviet victory was still fresh and vivid. Rinus Michels said before the final that team USSR was a great puzzle to him, for they were so unpredictable and who knows what surprise they will take out of their sleeves. After all, out of the blue they played defensive football against Eire, but great attacking football against Italy. What could be now? Ruud Gullit concurred, saying he would prefer Italy, USSR was the most difficult opponent. The Soviets were not so vocal, but they had problems – Bessonov was injured and out, Oleg Kuznetzov suspended. Lobanovsky had to make changes and probably his decision was mistaken: his defensive line was changed constantly due to unfortunate circumstances – against Italy it was Bessonov, Khidiatullin, O. Kuznetzov, Ratz. Bessonov had to be replaced with Sulakvelidze, for he suffered injury , but Sulakvelidze was too old by now to face the speedy Dutch. Demianenko, who suffered both injury and shaky play earlier in the tournament, was placed back in the team, but this time as right full back instead of his usual left-side position. Alleynikov was moved back to take the place of Kuznetzov – why he and not Sergey Baltacha? Perhaps because Bessonov was universal player, capable of playing any position and his versatility was very beneficial – he was strong in defense, but had great attacking ability too. Good play-maker, good striker, he could move around depending on flow of a game. Alleynikov was similar, although he never played defense before – a lesser version of Bessonov, but still similar, so most likely Lobanovsky felt that he will be a good weapon. Baltacha did not play at all so far and he lost his place largely because of injury suffered a few months earlier – it was not sure he was fit to play yet on one hand, and on the other – Khidiatullin and Kuznetzov made just the pair Lobanovsky needed: strong, physical, rugged, with a taste for going in attack. Putting Alleynikov in defense was a great risk, but also affected the other lines – so far, he played generally in midfield and once as a striker. Gotzmanov was fielded in the place of Alleynikov and Belanov was back in the attack. Again, it was partly because Lobanovsky could not use Alleynikov as a striker and partly because fast Belanov was perhaps the best to play against the Dutch – despite earlier disappointments, which led to his complete exclusion for the semi-final with Italy. But who else? He was the only one faster than the Dutch and perhaps his punishment awakened his ambitions. Fast forward to the game – the big mistake was Alleynikov in defense (so, Baltacha came out after all, substituting Gotzmanov in the 69th minute. Even that was too late.) Holland had no problems with injuries, suspended players, or lack of form and fielded their regular and best eleven with Gullit more like second striker than pure midfielder. Nominally, the team schemes were 4-4-1-1 – Holland – and 1-3-4-2 – USSR.
Holland: van Breukelen, van Aerle, Rijkard, Ronald Koeman, van Tiggelen, Wouters, Erwin Koeman, Banenburg, Arnold Muhren, Gullit, van Basten.
USSR: Dassaev, Demianenko, Khidiatullin, Alleynikov, Ratz, Litovchenko, Mikhailichenko, Zavarov, Gotzmanov (Baltacha, 69), Protassov (Pasulko, 72), Belanov.
The Soviet squad would tell Michels that defensive approach was out, for there were not enough defensive players on the field (no Bessonov, no Sulakvelidze – both able to switch from midfield to defense and back), but it was not a great concern anyway – the Dutch team was flying and there was no need to change tactics or players. It was entertaining clash from start, both teams attacking and also pressing hard, with the Dutch slightly getting the upper hand.
Erwin Koeman watching Zavarov building an attack – fairly equal match, both teams dangerous and creative.
Alleynikov blocks Gullit’s attack – that was the tiny difference… Alleynikov tried hard, but Gullit was too much for him and with time – able to get away from Alleynikov.
And in the 34th minute Gullit scored with a header, which the Soviets thought came after offside. But there was no offside… Alleynikov was the last man, not van Basten. Tiny mistake, but fatal.
And then in the second half van Basten scored his incredible and instantly famous goal and made it 2-0 in the 54th minute. And 10 minutes after that Lovanovsky substituted Gotzmanov with Baltacha, stabilizing his defense. It was too late by then, it was over by then…
For the Soviets got a penalty in the 59th minute and Belanov missed. Or van Breukelen saved… In any case Belanov did not have a great tournament and even the way he took the penalty confirmed the critics were right: he kicked it differently than his usual approach and thus helped van Breukelen. It is easy to analyze penalties and blame players after the fact – the main point is that USSR lost its chance for come back and then even Lobanovsky lost his cool by fielding another defender. True, Holland was incredibly dangerous, but the result was 0-2 and there were 20 minutes to play – why not enforcing the attack? In the last ten minutes physical condition became crucially important and the Dutch appeared to be fresher and stronger than the Soviets. Holland won, USSR was worthy opponent, the final was great show, that was real football pleasing everyone. Even Lobanovsky, in his peculiar manner, acknowledged that – ‘I think the viewers were pleased with the final. We had more chances and entirely controlled the game in the second half, but in football who defends better and manage to use his scoring chances wins. I wanted my players to be very active and press the opponents from start in order to dominate with other kind of football, I think we managed to do that.’ Such words from Lobanovsky’s mouth were a major complement, even sounding like he was not going to put his team to the usual hell – he praised it after a lost match! Michels, however, differed – he claimed his team achieved dominance, enforcing his style with great focus and skill. The most important thing, according to him, was not to give even a minute to play free to a team like USSR, it would be lethal. Frankly, Michels gave more accurate explanation than Lobanovsky – Holland was slightly stronger. But the match was highly entertaining and that was perhaps most important: two great teams clashed and played their best.
USSR finished second. Strangely, a photo of the team playing the final is very difficult to find – even Soviet publications at the time printed another formation of earlier game. So did many other magazines in Europe. Thus, a picture of the squad from the final is a rarity. Standing from left: Dassaev, Khidiatullin, Alleynikov, Demianenko, Mikhailichenko. Crouching: Ratz, Belanov, Zavarov, Gotzmanov, Protassov, Litovchenko.
USSR played great finals and achieved its best success since 1972, when they were finalists too. But the difference was enormous – the team in 1972 looked outdated and was entirely outplayed by West Germany at its peak. In 1988 the Soviets could have been winners and played vanguard football. One can say they were unfortunate, suffering injuries of key players, and unable to field their best team at the final, but may be Lobanovsky could be blamed to a point: not only for the risky decision to move Alleynikov to the defence for the most important match, but rather for his whole selection, where were some players who were not to play under any circumstances (Sukristov, Dmitriev, Vyshnevsky), thus limiting the team’s options in defence and attack. Still, the core of the team delivered, perhaps further motivated by prospects of playing abroad – at last Soviet players had real chances to move to European professional clubs and good performance would only increase their value. Soviet teams at the 1982 and 1986 World Cups made good impressions – and many of this squad played at those finals – but somewhat failed to advance: at last the team competed for the title, at last it delivered and was not only a nice promising team. The Soviets played so well that this time even at home they were not criticized. Even Lobanovsky appeared to be happy and satisfied.
Holland was the new European champion and perhaps this team deserved most to win, but it was euphoric victory for many reasons. First of all, they eliminated West Germany which was a revenge for the lost final in 1974. Second, Holland finally washed away the stigma of losing finals. Third, they had again a great generation and team, after years of decline, and once again were leading the continental football. The days of the great total football were revamped. There was a direct link with the glorious past too: Rinus Michels and Arnold Muhren. There was also some irony in that – the legendary Ajax, built by Michels, achieved more success without him and in that team Arnold Muhren was mere reserve, rarely playing – now he was European champion, something none of his famous teammates achieved. There were some more elements speaking in favour of Holland’88 when compared to Holland’74 and ’88: a strong goalkeeper, first of all, and no problems in defense. Back in 1974 Michels had to improvise, but now he had good players at hand. There was more than enough talent, even spilling over the basic eleven – Wim Kift and John Bosman saw little action, for Marco van Basten was fantastic. Aron Winter had to wait for his hour in the future too. Versatility was also very helpful – both Rijkard and Ronald Koeman started as midfielders, but had no problem moving back to central defense . Or back to midfield, particularly Rijkard. Similarly, Gullit played midfield or striker, depending on the needs of the moment. It was a dream team and even the peculiarities of the Dutch Federation could not prevent it from winning – the old tradition with quickly replaced coaches was still intact: back in 1974 Michels was hired just for the World Cup finals, then it was the same in 1978 with Ernst Happel, and now was almost the same as before – Michels officially came to coach the team a few years earlier, but Leo Beenhacker coached the team most of the time until the finals came. And with the end of Euro’88 Michels was gone, just like in 1974 and 1978. And Johan Cruijff was nearby… as the likeliest replacement of Michels and once again he was not in the team. One rumor said that Michels himself blocked Cruijff’s appointment, fearing that his favourit pupil will outshine him. Anyhow, all that was in the backyard and what was in front was triumph and joy – and rightly so.
The Dutch won a big trophy at last.
And posed for the last photo as if to rub more salt to West German wounds – their photo with the European Cup is suspiciously similar to the photo of West Germany with the World Cup in 1974.