Russia came through when it most mattered on Wednesday, June 18, beating Sweden to reach the quarter-finals of Euro 2008. It was a remarkable turnaround for a team who looked lost as Group D neared its conclusion.
Andrei Arshavin's return to the Russia team ignited a wonderful display
Some observers are crediting the unquestionable tactical genius of coach Guus Hiddink for the stunning Russian performance against Sweden on Wednesday night. Others are blaming the tired legs of Sweden's old boys for the defeat that sent Lars Lagerbaeck's team crashing out. Strangely enough, few are stating the obvious. Andrei Arshavin is back and Russia are looking very dangerous indeed.
When the Russians were thumped 4-1 in their opening game against Spain, riot police in Moscow were probably told that all leave was cancelled until further notice. The result of Russia's last ignominious exit -- from the 2002 World Cup -- was an orgy of violence and mayhem in the capital as hooligans vented their anger. The performance against Spain suggested that cars would be in flame by the end of Week One.
Moscow's luxury vehicle owners were still probably planning an enforced vacation after the Russian team's narrow 1-0 victory over Greece. It gave Hiddink's side three points but it hardly filled anyone with confidence. It also left Russia needing to beat Sweden to make it to the quarter-finals.
Sweden had hardly set pulses racing but they were better than the woeful Greeks and had stretched Spain to the limit in a narrow 2-1 defeat. Russia's hopes were suddenly hanging on a game in which the opposition had begun to find confidence, if not quality.
The change was remarkable. The Russia of the previous two games was nowhere in sight. The lack of cohesion had been eradicated, the insecurity in front of goal had been removed and the rigidity of formation and movement had been greased.
Arshavin at the heart of his team's performance
Arshavin's contribution was just part of a great team display
It was an excellent performance all round. Midfielder Konstantin Zyryanov was everywhere while striker Roman Pavlyuchenko rediscovered the touch and confidence that destroyed England in qualifying but which had inexplicably vanished into thin air, prompting his coach to threaten to leave him at home.
But at the heart of this revival was Arshavin. His contribution to the turnaround in form stuck out like a red Russian shirt in a sea of Swedish yellow. One game back from suspension and the Zenit St. Petersburg playmaker turned desperation into a celebration.
While some credit surely must go to Hiddink for putting Arshavin back into the side, despite rumors he was not match fit, it now seems ridiculous to think he could have ever left him out.
Hiddink played Arshavin in his favorite role, as the deep-lying attacker; operating in a productive no-man's land between Sweden's midfield and defense, roaming left, right and center, collecting the ball from deep, probing, passing and driving into the box with menace.
Russia inspired by returning star
Russian played with cohesion and passion against Sweden
Within minutes of the first whistle, Arshavin's team mates, who looked flat in their first two games, seemed to be lifted by his presence and suddenly passes were zipping in and around the Swedish box with hitherto unseen zest. Russia were transformed into a team who look capable of giving any defense a grilling and the return of their number 10 was key.
"Arshavin is a player who can decide very, very fast where he can create danger... he can turn left, right, he knows where an opponent is so he is a very smart player," Hiddink said. "You can see he can make the difference, not for himself by the goal but for the other guys on the field.
"We tried to play with him between their defensive line and their two defensive midfielders and he's very smart to play in that area because we knew from the analysis that the Swedish team was not covering there," the Russia coach added.
There was always a chance that Arshavin would come into Euro 2008 just when Russia needed him most. Carrying a suspension into the tournament from the qualifying rounds, the diminutive schemer always had an eye on the final group game, with many observers believing Russia's tournament would hinge on that result. They were proved right. And Arshavin, for his part, delivered.
Virtuoso display capped with goal
After a lengthy run, Arshavin made it 2-0 to Russia
After Zyryanov and Alexander Anyukov had combined to neatly set up Pavlyuchenko to fire in a crisp first-time shot for the lead, it was left to the Zenit star to cap a virtuoso performance with a 50 meter run which ended with him scoring the second goal. He could have had at least a hat-trick before the final whistle but for an introduction to a tournament and a team which had been missing his inclusion; it was a very good start.
"We played very well, we attacked very well," said Arshavin. "At 1-0 I thought we sat back a bit, which I didn't like, but when we got the second goal I thought we could have gone on to get more. I hope we can do the same again against Holland but they are the strongest team in the tournament."
The Dutch, who have been using a number of players in a similar mould to Arshavin to equally good effect, will prove a stern test for the Russians. But Arshavin's return to the team may prompt the Netherlands to adopt a more cautious approach, adding a steely defense to their rapier attack.
Whatever the tactics, the quarter-finals just got a little more interesting, thanks in no small part to the inspirational Andrei Arshavin.