Andrei Arshavin frustrated Arsenal fans this season, but he remains a joy in interviews. Call him a thoughtful, philosophical chap. Here was more proof as Arshavin discussed Russia’s mindset.
“To put it simply, what lies in the Russian character, and why someone might consider us a dark horse, is that we can lose against every team and we can win against every team,” he told UEFA.com.
When the probing continued, Arshavin added, “It’s in the character of the Russian people that when we gather strength in our fist and we don’t have anywhere to retreat to, we can win against any team. But if we relax a bit and follow our feelings, we can lose to a very weak team.”
The Czech Republic isn’t a “very” weak team, but it’s certainly not the strongest. And after topping Italy 3-0 away in a recent friendly, Russia was expected to comfortably get past the Czechs in Wroclaw, Poland, on Friday.
It wasn’t as easy as the score suggested, but Russia got what it wanted, all three points, following a 4-1 win that put Dick Advocaat’s team atop Group A.
Another Netherlands vs. Spain? This game must have set the record for quickest foul in history. If only they kept such stats. Only two seconds were on the clock when Czech midfielder Jan Rezek drove into Russian forward Aleksandr Kerzhakov. The referee, of course, just had to be Howard Webb, who refereed the World Cup final between Spain and the Netherlands. But the early collision wasn’t a sign of things to come. The chippy play didn’t linger. What evolved was a free-flowing encounter atypical of opening match days.
Webb made one blunder, not giving Russia a penalty when Jaroslav Plasil took out Arshavin in the box having gotten absolutely none of the ball. But otherwise the Premier League’s top ref acquitted himself well.
Yes, he’s the same guy: Arshavin played with heart. And since he lined up for Russia, not Arsenal, it wasn’t all that strange. Arshavin’s emotional speech to the FIFA brass, the one in which he got all choked up, helped Russia land the World Cup in 2018 (we won’t go into why better bids were rejected).
Arshavin thrives in space, and his pass in the 18th minute began an impressive Russian move that ended with right-sided attacking midfielder Alan Dzagoev shooting wide when one-on-one with Petr Cech.
Why do so many players try to find the near post when an opening isn’t there?
Arshavin didn’t intend another pass to find Roman Shirokov for Russia’s second goal in the 24th minute, but he’ll take it.
With Arshavin in the mood, as he was at Euro 2008, another semifinal isn’t out of the question for Russia.
Good choice: Advocaat got it right, then, when he chose two-goal man Dzagoev over Marat Izmailov. Arshavin, Dzagoev and Kerzhakov, the front three, were always threats against the Czech Republic.
Unfortunately for Kerzhakov, he lacked an end product. He shot wide on no fewer than three good opportunities, meaning Russian fans had to bite their fingernails midway in the second half as the Czechs narrowed the deficit to 2-1.
When Russia meets Poland on Tuesday, Advocaat has to decide whether to replace Kerzhakov with Roman Pavlyuchenko. Pavlyuchenko, usually wasteful himself, weaved past Czech defenders to net a brilliant fourth goal after replacing Kerzhakov.
Had he been fully fit (and match tough), Igor Akinfeev would have gotten the nod in goal for Russia. He wasn’t, since Vyacheslav Malafeev began between the posts. Malafeev flapped at a cross within 10 minutes but was otherwise untroubled. He made a decent save to deny the disappointing Tomas Rosicky when it was 2-1.
Bright spot for the Czechs: Theodor Gebre Selassie, the first black player to represent the Czechs, was caught at the back in the early going. That was the bad. But the good from Selassie was that, unlike most of his teammates, he wasn’t lacking in energy and made several fine runs. When he’s upfield, he has to get better support behind him.
Questions surrounded Rosicky’s health, and judging by Friday’s display, perhaps he wasn’t 100 percent. Then again, for most of his time at Arsenal he’s underwhelmed.
Conclusion: It’s hard to criticize a team when it scores four goals, but Russia squandered a handful of chances and appeared fragile when the Czechs did attack. Against better opposition, Arshavin & Co. will be punished.
As for the Czechs, they’ll have to pick up their game to advance from Group A. At least the toughest one is out of the way.
London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.