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...