No other team presents such a huge gap between football potential and mental strength. That is why Russia are out, with wet pants, once again.
You can’t help feeling sorry for Konstantin Zyryanov - the midfielder who overcame the most devastating personal tragedy ten years ago, when his wife committed suicide and killed their daughter by jumping from their eighth-floor flat.
He only became an international star at 29. Now almost 35, he has no hope of retaining his place in the national team that is going to be rebuilt ahead of the home World Cup in 2018. This was his last tournament. He never knew that facing Poland would become his final game in the red shirt. Zyryanov missed the fixture versus Greece with fever, and watched his team-mates crashing out, when the expectations were so high. But were they?
Zyryanov’s most famous quote will help us to understand the psychological problems faced by Russian footballers for quite a long time now. After gloriously beating England in the Euro 2008 qualifiers, coming from behind thanks to a Roman Pavlyuchenko brace, the Zenit midfielder stood in front of a journalist who told him: “Everything is in your hands now”.
Giggling quite awkwardly, Zyryanov promptly answered: “Yeah, but I hope we don’t wet our pants in Israel. That would be so much like us if we do!” And they did! Russia lost 2-1 in Tel Aviv, and only qualified for the tournament thanks to that crazy Croatian night at Wembley, starring Scott Carson and “the wally with a brolly”.
Russia arrived in Austria and Switzerland with no expectations whatsoever, and shocked the world with outstanding attacking play, beating Holland in the quarter-final that went down as one of the most impressive games in history.
That sums up Russia. Their potential is huge, but for some bizarre reason they are only capable of fulfilling it when nobody takes them seriously. Once the Russians are considered favourites, they tend to fall apart.
You don’t have to think too hard to come up with recent examples of such tragedies. The defeat in Israel was only one of them. The unthinkable fiasco against Slovenia during the 2010 World Cup qualification playoffs wasn’t that unthinkable for Russian fans and players.
Guus Hiddink’s side played with confidence in the first leg in Moscow and took a 2-0 lead. Then they conceded a very late goal to Slovenian substitute Nejc Pecnik, and from that moment everybody somehow had a feeling nothing good would happen in the return leg in Maribor. Those fears became reality, as Marko Devic scored at the end of the first half, just like Giorgos Karagounis on Saturday. None of the stars on the field believed they could recover from that blow against clearly inferior, but equally clearly more motivated, opponents.
Less than a year later, Zenit, the club that provides the backbone of the national side, meekly succumbed to Auxerre in the Champions League qualifiers. The team that swept aside everything in front of them en-route to sensationally winning the UEFA Cup in 2008, never looked mentally capable of overcoming a very mediocre French outfit. They won 1-0 in St Petersburg and were “shocked” 2-0 in the return. Only nobody was really shocked. There was a scent of Slovenian déjà vu in the air.
Even in the friendlies ahead of Euro 2012 you could sense this psychological paradox. The very team that almost lost to Lithuania reserves went on and thrashed Italy 3-0 just a few days later. The problem of Dick Advocaat was obvious – his team got a very cruel draw. Yes, you read it right.
Group A, with Poland, Greece and Czech Republic was way too easy for Russia to progress from. They became the clearest favourites possible, they had no room for error. They just couldn’t fail to reach the quarter-finals at the very least. That is exactly the reason they did eventually fail, and thrashing the hapless Czechs in the first game only made matters worse.
Of course, losing to Greece was unthinkable. That is exactly why many Russian fans expected it. To make the threat much more serious, the players expected it as well. The front-page headline of the biggest Russian sports newspaper Sport-Express quoted keeper Vyacheslav Malafeev saying: “The first goal will be very important”. Just think about it for a second.
Russia were facing a weaker team, only needing a draw to qualify from the group. How on Earth can the first goal be so important? If Russia concede it, all they have to do is score one themselves. Why should it be such a big deal if you believe in yourselves? Can you possibly imagine Manuel Neuer, Iker Casillas, Gigi Buffon or even Shay Given saying something like that in similar circumstances?
But Malafeev thought the first goal would be very important. His team-mates thought it would be very important. That is the only reason it was so important. After conceding it, in the very last second of the first half, none of Russia’s players really believed they could avoid the inevitable catastrophe. Just like in Maribor, just like in Auxerre, they were finished there and then.
They continued trying, knowing only too well all the shots would go wide. Sometimes agonizingly wide, like in the case of Alan Dzagoev’s header, but wide nonetheless. No other team presents such a huge gap between football potential and mental strength. That is why Russia are out with wet pants once again. If only they were drawn in the Group of Death, they might as well have gone all the way to the final.
“It will be a big mistake to play for a draw against Greece” says Dick Advocaat. He is right for two important reasons. Firstly, it will be against Russia’s nature to defend from the start, and their weakest link, the slow pair of centre-backs, will likely crack under constant pressure. Secondly, it is extremely important to finish top of the group in order to avoid meeting Germany in the quarter-finals. A draw might not be enough to assure first place if Czech Republic beat Poland, and thus it is wise for Russia to mentally prepare themselves to fight for three points against Fernando Santos’ side.
Here are a few tips that might be useful to achieve this goal.
A. Attack from the very first minute. Greece proved to be very slow starters in both of their games at Euro 2012 so far. They were virtually nonexistent in the first half against Poland, as the hosts should have scored much more than just a solitary Robert Lewandowski goal. The Greeks went “one better” against the Czechs, conceding two goals in the first six minutes, thus setting a new European Championship record. The previous one, by the way, was a hefty 16 minutes, with Frank Rijkaard and Rob Witschge scoring for Holland against Germany 20 years ago. It will be difficult to surprise Greece with an outright attacking attitude, but they will most likely be found unprepared nevertheless. Take them by storm, as scoring an early goal will be of huge significance. After all, Greece are still to concede a goal in the second half in this tournament. It is also quite ironic to mention that Russia scored the fastest ever goal in the tournament against Greece, with Dmitry Kirichenko netting after 68 seconds at Euro 2004.
B. If Fernando Santos chooses to play the dreadfully out-of-form Jose Holebas at left-back again, he should be taken advantage of. Jakub Blaszczykowski, Lukasz Piszczek, Theodor Gebre Selassie and Petr Jiracek already exposed Holebas’ awful positioning, and there is little doubt Alan Dzagoev and Aleksandr Anyukov can do the same. Another useful idea will be to send Andrei Arshavin to the relevant wing from time to time, and instruct Roman Shirokov to pop up there as often as possible.
C. Keep an eye on opponents’ fastest players, especially Dimitris Salpingidis. The man who is responsible for the fabulous comeback against Poland poses the major threat to Aleksei Berezutsky and Sergei Ignashevich with his sheer pace. Vaclav Pilar used his speed to score the consolation goal against Russia in the opening fixture, and that type of through balls is the most dangerous weapon of Greece as well. Giorgos Karagounis, the man whose vision remains his major asset, could easily split the defence a couple of times, and conceding the first goal will be a huge setback for the team not renowned for mental strength.
D. Don’t make stupid fouls. Karagounis is yet to perform a dangerous free kick in this tournament, but that doesn’t mean he forgot how to shoot them. This is his second major asset, and Igor Denisov will be extremely wise not to make rush challenges around his penalty area.
E. Don’t even think about the Swedish referee. It is difficult to overcome the trauma of Erik Fredriksson who ruined not one but two World Cup campaigns for the Soviets, first allowing two offside Belgium goals to stand in the last 16 in Mexico-86, and then overlooking a Diego Maradona goal-line handball clearance four years later. Russia can be paranoid at times, and seeing another Swedish official, Jonas Eriksson, doesn’t add any confidence. There is absolutely no reason to fear, and negative thoughts will only do a lot of harm to the team itself. Remember – it is Greece who suffered most from refereeing errors so far in this tournament. They should be the ones who feel harshly treated, not Russia. If Advocaat’s side loses this one to a much inferior opposition, they will only have themselves to blame.
If the Greece coaches read this, they might already have understood what they have to do to improve their chances. Santos should play as many fast players as possible, with the Giannis Fetfatzidis option to be considered. He should drop Holebas, and employ the universal Vasilis Torosidis on the left, moving Sokratis Papastathopoulos to the right, and keeping Kostas Katsouranis to partner Kyriakos Papadopoulos in central defence. Greece should also do their utmost to make Russia players feel uncomfortable psychologically. Playing ultra-defensive football in the first minutes, and trying to make some swift counter-attacks might be useful in that respect. Even shouting the name of Fredriksson is a cute way to go, when Eriksson doesn’t hear. On the other hand, my colleague Chris Paraskevas would possibly disagree with some of these points.
It looks like Andrei Arshavin’s contribution is fast becoming one of the most debated and controversial topics of Euro 2012. While many hailed the captain for numerous bursts of energy versus Czech Republic that reminded of his astonishing performance four years ago, others were very critical of his attitude. Now, following the draw with Poland, Russia is truly divided.
Who is the real Arshavin? The one who is not afraid to take the game on himself, eager to create openings, sending the brilliant free-kick for Alan Dzagoev to head in? Or maybe the one who took wrong decisions in the second half, lost the ball on many occasions and was responsible for the Polish counter-attack what resulted in Jakub Blaszczykowski’s mighty strike?
Some claim Arshavin is one of the best players of the tournament at this point. Others prefer to focus on his far from perfect physical condition, that sees him taking long breaks during games, and sometimes makes him look disinterested and apathetic. Arsenal fans would surely understand the last sentence, but since moving on loan to Zenit in February seemed to have gradually regained his desire. Listen, though, to Zenit CEO Maksim Mitrofanov, who said a week ago: “Keeping Arshavin is not our main goal. He should show his interest in staying himself, because we are only interested in those who play regularly. If he has such a will, we would negotiate with him. Otherwise he will only remain a legend, not a footballer”.
Arshavin is definitely fighting for his future contract this month. It’s very much unclear whether he wants to complete a move to Zenit, but Arsenal’s desire to sell him is more than evident. The Londoners would love to get £8 million for him, and at 31 that might be quite a high price to pay for an inconsistent performer. He is in a shop window now, and he acts accordingly. At times, he is trying his hardest, and his great vision never disappeared, as his majestic through-ball to Roman Shirokov proved on the opening night. But many Russia fans prefer to see the negative side of Arshavin. Ever since the World Cup playoff fiasco in Slovenia in November 2009, he was an extremely popular subject to justified and unjustified criticism.
Andrei Kanchelskis, the winger of Manchester United fame, said after the game against Poland: “Arshavin tried to take the game on himself, but he was clearly unfit”. Another former star, Andrei Tikhonov, stated: “He should have been substituted near the end”. On the other hand, Yegveny Lovchev, one of the most vocal pundits, was full of praise for the captain: “I was pleasantly surprised and delighted by his attitude and will to work for the team. Never before has he worked so hard to help the defence”.
While Arshavin is currently leading Euro 2012 in assists, some provocative Russian websites try to open a nasty campaign against him. Bizarre headlines like “Arshavin saved Poland from defeat” and “Russian fans demand to take Arshavin out of the starting line-up” are spreading all over the net.
It is interesting whether Arshavin himself is paying attention to what is said about him. After becoming the ultimate villain at the Emirates stadium, infamously whistled when substituting Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain against Manchester United, he is obviously very used to harsh words from the press. It might not always seem that way, but he is also a very self-critical person, likely to blame himself for his mistakes and not to look for scapegoats elsewhere. He is more that aware that his bad pass eventually resulted in that Kuba equaliser. He knows he was very tired towards the end of the game, and admitted it. Does he deserve to be slaughtered? Should he be complimented instead?
One thing is certain – Arshavin fans and enemies will be closely watching him against Greece. The tournament is intense, and he will not be fitter or fresher for that fixture. His motivation will be doubted at every single moment. This blog, though, will try to concentrate on the positive aspects of his play. For now, he more than deserves it.
It was quite amusing to hear journalists ask Dick Advocaat whether Aleksandr Kerzhakov will continue in the starting line-up versus Poland. Personally, I had to argue with quite a few pundits who were convinced that Zenit striker should be benched after missing all his chances in the opener against Czech Republic. They thought so because they don’t have a clue about the Russian system. “Historically wasteful Kerzhakov the villain on night of heroes” was just one not too smart headline published after the game. It simply couldn’t be further from the truth.
Granted, Kerzhakov had seven shots off target, setting an new all-time European Championship record. But he was no villain at all. On the contrary, the lone striker was one of the best and most important players on the pitch. As mentioned here last week, Russia's style is very similar to that of Zenit. It is based on constant movement of the striker, who takes central defenders out of the box with him, allowing team-mates to sneak into the spaces created. The second goal by Roman Shirokov was the perfect example of such play. The midfielder went unnoticed into the scoring position, and Andrei Arshavin picked him out with an immaculate through-ball while both Roman Hubnik and Tomas Sivok concentrated on Kerzhakov. His part in the first goal by Alan Dzagoev was even more evident, as he missed the target by inches with a great header, and the CSKA Moscow youngster was on spot to claim the rebound off the post.
Obviously, Roman Pavlyuchenko was also impressive after the tired and somewhat frustrated Kerzhakov was substituted. The former Tottenhem striker assisted Dzagoev for his second goal, and then scored a glorious one himself. However, it only means that Advocaat has a good option on the bench, just in case Plan A doesn’t work. For all his qualities, Pavlyuchenko is less mobile and doesn’t fit the system. Pavel Pogrebnyak, despite his Zenit past and good ties with Advocaat, doesn’t fit in either. Both can be useful near the end of the game, when exhausted defenders will not be able to take on physically strong opponents. Neither will start, unless something terrible happens to “Kerzh”.
“He played really well, but was very unlucky,” Advocaat said of his protégé. He didn’t say that just to console the striker and help him maintain his confidence. He really meant it, and he was absolutely right.
Kerzhakov's story is a complicated one, as he was only part of international failures till now. He grew up at Zenit together with Arshavin, and the duo developed a great understanding between them. It speaks volumes about Aleksandr that he was actually considered the better prospect of the two, thus included by Oleg Romantsev in his 2002 World Cup squad at the tender age of 19. He barely featured, as Russia crashed out, with even an younger striker, Dmitry Sychev, taking all the plaudits. At Euro 2004 he failed to make his mark when given the only opportunity against Portugal. While his reputation grew with each season, the move to Sevilla in January 2007 proved to be a wrong step. Watching Frederic Kanoute and Luis Fabiano from the bench, he lost some of his form. Just like Arshavin and Pavlyuchenko this year, “Kerzh” moved back to the Russian Premier League in January 2008 in order to fight for his place in the national team squad. That didn’t help. Guus Hiddink was cruel in his decision not to take Kerzhakov to Euro 2008, and never changed his mind even when Pogrebnyak was injured ahead of the tournament.
Thus Kerzhakov missed the solitary positive Russian experience. He was back for the World Cup qualifiers, only to be rather harshly sent off in the play-off fiasco in Slovenia. Now, at long last, he has a chance to shine on the big stage. After scoring 22 goals for Zenit despite missing a few weeks with injury in late 2011, he couldn’t be better prepared. Some of the misses on Friday might have been pretty bad, but that doesn’t mean a thing. Kerzhakov is the perfect striker for Advocaat. He never stops trying, and you shouldn’t bet against him finding the net on Tuesday against Poland.
When witnessing the brilliant interchanges between Russia’s players, as they dismantled a rather poorly organised Czech Republic team, it was impossible not to think of the great Valery Lobanovsky’s USSR teams of the late '80s, based almost completely on Dinamo Kiev stars.
The Soviets thrashed Hungary 6-0 in their first game at 1986 World Cup in Mexico with no fewer than eight Kiev players, who had only just lifted the Cup Winners’ Cup, taking to the field. There were Oleg Kuznetsov and Vladimir Bessonov in central defence, Anatoly Demyanenko on the left, Pavel Yakovenko, Ivan Yaremchuk, Vasily Rats and Aleksandr Zavarov in a very mobile midfield, and the rocket-fast Igor Belanov up front. Another Kiev player, Vadim Yevtushenko, was introduced as a substitute. Only Spartak Moscow’s legendary 'keeper Rinat Dasaev, Zenit right-back Nikolay Larionov and Dinamo Minsk midfield turbo Sergei Aleinikov were not from the club coached, quite obviously, by Lobanovsky himself. That team took the tournament by storm, and only some very unfortunate referee decisions, coupled with significant psychological problems, caused their premature exit at the hands of Belgium in the last 16.
Two years later, when USSR reached the final at Euro '88, there were seven Kiev starters, this time including midfield schemer Gennady Litovchenko and striker Oleg Protasov, close friends who were bench material in Mexico, but were promoted after joining Dinamo from Dnepr Dnepropetrovsk in 1987. That’s how Lobanovsky liked it. Cohesion was extremely important for him. It is proving to be equally important this summer for Dick Advocaat’s Russia, aka Zenit.
Advocaat worked with Zenit for more than three years. He led the Gazprom-financed club to their first league title in 2007, winning the UEFA Cup a few months later. The Dutchman is responsible for turning Konstantin Zyryanov into a world-class midfielder after signing him as a 29-year-old under-achiever from relegated Torpedo Moscow. He helped an unstable character like Igor Denisov to become one of the most tactically disciplined players you will witness at this tournament. He improved Aleksandr Anyukov’s versatility on the right wing, and let Andrei Arshavin flourish like never before. He brought Roman Shirokov to Zenit, even though his astonishing development is down to current Italian coach Luciano Spalletti. He even had the pleasure to work for one season with Aleksandr Kerzhakov, prior to his transfer to Sevilla in January 2007, which ultimately cost him the place in Euro 2008 squad. He knows them all.
Spain are based around Barcelona, Germany resemble Bayern Munich, past and present, but they don’t come close to what Russia assembled this time. Quite significantly, three non-Zenit players in the line-up – Alan Dzagoev, Sergei Ignashevich and Aleksei Berezutsky – are all from CSKA Moscow, while the fourth, Yuri Zhirkov, currently at Anzhi Makhachkala, was also brought up at CSKA. Basically, Russia are a two-club national team. Their mutual understanding is better than any other outfit at the Euros.
All that doesn’t mean we should get carried away after their first impressive showing. Zenit are no world-beaters, and their mental problems were evident for all to see when they were eliminated by Auxerre in the Champions League qualifiers two years ago, or hopelessly succumbed to Benfica in Lisbon this very March. Kerzhakov, although extremely instrumental is the fluent attacking play, was woefully wasteful in front of goal, and Russia will hope that doesn’t affect his confidence. The defence was rarely tested by the naïve Czech front line, with Milan Baros clearly not fully fit. When it was, Vaclav Pilar posed significant problems to the slow central defence with his lightning pace. That critical issue will remain unsolved, and Russia could easily pay very high price for it against quality opposition.
Additionally, it might be argued that Advocaat’s team is easier for opponents to study. While their style is mainly based on unpredictable movements of the front players, with Kerzhakov, Arshavin, Dzagoev and especially Shirokov frequently wandering out of their natural positions, thus being very difficult to mark, they still can be studied thoroughly and will never pose a global tactical surprise – just the minor ones.
Versus Czech Republic, though, those countless “minor surprises” proved to be crucial. Now it remains to be seen if the system works against better teams in the knockout stages. Lobanovsky’s obsession with cohesion eventually failed to win him international trophies. Could Advocaat possibly go one better?
Look at all 368 players at Euro 2012, and it will be very difficult to find one whose fortunes changed more dramatically since the previous tournament than those of Roman Shirokov. His is the most unusual story, an ultimate tale of a late-bloomer, whose career took an extremely unexpected turn.
For quite a few years, since being kicked out of CSKA Moscow without playing a single second, Shirokov was considered an undisciplined alcohol-loving below-average midfielder. Then, in the beginning of 2008, Dick Advocaat surprisingly signed him at Zenit, thanks to a couple of good games at tiny Khimki. Not only that – the Dutchman decided to move the player into central defence. Impressive in the UEFA Cup, including the win against Rangers in the final at City of Manchester Stadium, he was surprisingly included by Guus Hiddink into his Euro squad, and even more astonishingly given the responsibility against Spain in the opener in Innsbruck.
That’s where it all went terribly wrong. Not only Shirokov proved incapable of stopping David Villa who bagged a hat-trick, he also allegedly claimed in a post-game interview that nobody told him the Valencia star is supposed to start for La Roja. That was way too much for Hiddink to swallow. The sorry newcomer was benched for the rest of the tournament, watching his teammates excel on their way to semi-finals, and never called again by the Dutchman. Some Russian pundits openly said he is simply not good enough for such a high level, and the awful Villa quote made so many headlines that Shirokov was basically thought to be nothing less than a village idiot. At 27, his career was apparently over before it really started.
Then two extremely significant events occurred. Firstly, Zenit sold Anatoliy Tymoshchuk to Bayern Munich in the summer of 2009. Six months later, Luciano Spalletti was signed as the next coach at the Gazprom-sponsored club. With Igor Denisov moved into Tymoshchuk’s holding position, there was a place in the more offensive midfield role up for grabs. The Italian coach put Shirokov into that spot. The results were imminent. Roman improved with every month, his game became more and more intelligent as his understanding with fellow midfielders, especially Denisov and Konstantin Zyryanov, became better. Suddenly, he looked like one of the best performers in the league. Even more importantly, it turned out he is not stupid at all. Quite the contrary – Shirokov’s outspoken remarks on Twitter showed an intelligent person who is brave enough to share his often provocative thoughts with everyone. Finally, he has come of age, both on and off the field.
2010 was great for Shirokov, and when Advocaat replaced Hiddink as Russia coach he immediately recalled his former protégé into the squad. 2011/12 record-long Russian season proved to be even better. Apart from playing a vital part in an extremely fluid and eye-pleasing Zenit midfield, Shirokov developed an uncanny habit of popping up in scoring positions when the opponents least expect that, in a manner not dis-similar to that of Frank Lampard. That was especially evident in the Champions League, when Roman scored braces against Portuguese giants, both in a crucial 3-1 win over Porto in the group stage and in a 3-2 triumph versus Benfica in the last 16, even though Zenit spectacularly failed to protect that lead in Lisbon.
He does that for the national team as well, and it is no surprise he feels at home in what is basically a Zenit line-up, with Denisov, Zyryanov, Andrey Arshavin and Aleksandr Kerzhakov all important starters for Advocaat. Shirokov scored the winner in Greece in November, was on target in Denmark in February, and last week netted twice versus Italy in Zurich. That counts for four of his six international goals. There is little doubt he arrived to Poland in a very rich form, and at 31 this might be his only chance to shine on the big stage, finally putting the 2008 ghost to rest.
Watch out for Shirokov’s clever movement on Friday versus the heavy Czech defence. You will see some exquisite through balls to Kerzhakov, endless interchanges with Zyryanov, and several perfectly timed sneaks into the penalty area. There will be a lot to tweet about.
Previously on the blog: The painful goalkeeping dilemma
People might say it’s a “good problem” to have, but there is no doubt Dick Advocaat is facing a very painful dilemma. He’s got two extraordinarily able goalkeepers in his squad. Both of them are more than worthy of a place between the posts at Euro 2012. The Dutchman must choose one of them, while dealing a heavy blow to the other. Igor Akinfeev versus Vyacheslav Malafeev – the choice has never been tougher.
Until August 2011 such a question was never debated. Akinfeev, CSKA Moscow sensation since the age of 17, was the undisputed Number 1 for Russia. He was brilliant at Euro 2008, and even a few significant mistakes, like the one that led to the home defeat to Slovakia in the beginning of Euro 2012 qualifying campaign, didn’t put him under fire. Then came Welliton, Spartak striker with a reputation of a dirty player who doesn’t care much for opponent keepers’ health. The Brazilian collided with Akinfeev during the big Moscow derby, and Igor landed awkwardly on the synthetic Luzhniki pitch, tearing the cruciate ligament in his left knee, which was already operated in 2007.
It took Akinfeev more than half a year to come back, and in the meantime 33-years-old Malafeev hasn’t put his foot wrong. It’s hardly surprising, as Zenit keeper is long known for his reliability and calmness under pressure. He was always good, just not good enough to displace Akinfeev. This season, however, he played even better, and finally got his chance to shine for the national team. Malafeev prominence is especially remarkable when you remember the terrible tragedy of March 2011, when his wife Marina was killed in a road accident. Malafeev asked to play for Zenit just two days after the funeral and kept a clean sheet against Anzhi Makhachkala. This was the beginning of the best season of his career. Grieving only made him more concentrated and committed.
Initially cautious, and sometimes even cruel and rude towards Malafeev, the Russian press gradually began to understand that missing Akinfeev at the Euros will not be such a huge issue. That’s when Igor came back with a bang. He took the field in April, in the game against Zenit, facing his rival, and while CSKA lost 0-2, Akinfeev’s form was no short of breathtaking. That’s how it continued till the end of the season. The Horses, as CSKA are known, played poorly and eventually lost the fight for a place in Champions League qualifiers, but their goalkeeper made stunning saves in every game. He was definitely ready for every possible challenge.
And so it went down to the wire. Malafeev was given the nod in the friendly against Uruguay, and put a very solid display in a 1-1 draw. Akinfeev got his chance in the boring goalless draw versus Lithuania, and made no mistakes. Finally, each of them played 45 minutes in the last test against Italy, which ended in a 3-0 triumph. Malafeev had more work to do in the first half, when Andrea Pirlo was on fire, but Akinfeev was equally safe after the break. If Advocaat secretly hoped for one of them to slip up, even marginally, to make his decision easier, he didn’t get his wish. The Dutchman is very close to Malafeev, whom he knows so well from their mutual years at Zenit. He also respects Akinfeev very much, and rates him as one of the best keepers in the world. He is well aware both of them went through extremely difficult emotional moments during the last year. He doesn’t want to let any of them down. But he has to. It’s getting almost unbearable.
Initially, Advocaat said that the keeper who plays against Uruguay will be the starter at the tournament. He took that statement back, and no claims we will have to wait till June 8 to know who plays against Czech Republic. There is less than one week left, and it’s not going to be easier. Just the contrary. If only he could choose both of them...