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.