As Guus Hiddink ran onto the pitch at FC Basel’s St Jakob Park at around five past ten tonight, fist clenched, face contorted with joy, there was only one man he was heading for. The man crumpled on the turf, completely drained thanks to a combination of the emotion of an extra time win, and the fatigue of two hours’ worth of tireless running and sublime quality.
That man, of course, was Andrei Arshavin. The 27 year old who had shot to attention in this country last autumn with an eye-catching display against Steve McClaren’s England, a crucial win in the context of qualification. The man whose vision, awareness, passing and finishing had been pivotal in Zenit St Petersburg’s charge to UEFA Cup glory last month, to follow up their first ever Russian league title in 2007. And the man who had just produced perhaps the finest personal performance we have seen in this tournament- and in a tournament as stunning as this one, that is some achievement.
Arshavin was suspended for Russia’s first two group matches, as Hiddink’s side collapsed to a 4-1 defeat to Spain, before scraping a narrow 1-0 victory over Greece (although in truth that scoreline should have been far more comfortable). In both these matches the common consensus was that the Russian side, for all its technical and physical quality, simply lacked a cutting edge in the final third.
But with Arshavin returning to face Sweden, the team suddenly found its voice. Arshavin was imperious against the Swedes, his passing crisp and creative, his acceleration and balance rendering him almost unplayable. It was his slide rule pass that began the move which ended with Roman Pavlyuchenko- until then a willing but frustrating forward (think Dirk Kuyt with a better touch)- sliding in Russia’s opener, a perfectly weighted and timed ball for the ever-willing Konstantin Zyryanov. And it was his perfectly-taken second goal, sliding Yuri Zhirkov’s pass beyond Andreas Isaksson after instigating yet another flowing move, which sealed the Russian passage to the quarter finals. And set Hiddink up for a fascinating clash with his homeland, the Netherlands.
The Netherlands, it is fair to say, have established themselves as a neutral’s dream at this tournament. The quality and thrust of Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben, Rafael Van der Vaart, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Dirk Kuyt- yes, that Dirk Kuyt- had made for complusive viewing in the Group of Death, as they brushed aside first Italy, then France, before swatting away Romania despite nine changes to their line-up. But tonight, with Robben ruled out through injury, they ran into a familiar face, and a familiar style of football.
Russia were at it from the first whistle, their “passing and moving” game left the Dutch midfield- so mobile and energetic in the group stage- looking lethargic. And at the heart of it all was the fantastic Arshavin. ITV’s commentary team made a lot of the fact that Holland did not operate a man-marker on him, but the truth was that there was not a man on earth who could have marked him tonight.
One typical run midway through the first half brought a stunning finger-tip save from Edwin Van der Sar as Arshavin bamboozled Andre Ooijer and steered his shot towards the far corner, whilst the only real response the Dutch defenders seemed to have was to foul him before he got into a position to hurt them.
But hurt them he did. After his ambitious free kick from the left had flashed wide of the far post, it was his simple pass down the left which allowed Semak to whip in a perfect cross for Pavlyuchenko to steer a fine left foot volley past Van der Sar and open the scoring. It was the type of goal expected in a game such as this, although most would have predicted it to be Ruud Van Nistelrooy wheeling away in triumph. And it was a goal that forced Holland to push up, giving Arshavin the license to cause havoc as Russia threatened to put the game out of sight on the break. Johnny Heitinga & Andre Ooijer in particular were given a torrid time as Arshavin, cutting in from the left, created chance after chance.
It was reminiscent of his virtuoso display in the BayArena back in March as he inspired Zenit to a 4-1 win over Bayer Leverkusen, only this time (for the time being anyway), there was no one to put the finishing touch to his brilliance. And when Van Nistelrooy converted Sneijder’s free kick four minutes from time, it looked like Arshavin may somehow end up on the losing side.
But in extra time, with the Dutch looking decidedly heavy-legged- despite an extra five days’ rest for most of their side- Russia & Arshavin found extra reserves of energy. Ably assisted by the ever-willing Zhirkov, and the tireless Zyryanov & Pavlyuchenko, Arshavin played extra time as if he should have been holding a baton, conducting the Russian orchestra. Twice in a matter of minutes he opened up the Dutch defence with mesmeric runs, the first scrambled clear by Nigel De Jong, the second producing a gilt-edged chance for substitute Dimitri Torbinskiy which the Lokomotiv Moscow hurriedly prodded into the arms of Van der Sar, despite an abundance of time and space in the area.
Torbinskiy, who picked up a yellow card that will rule him out of Thursday’s semi final, did not have to wait long to make amends however. And again it was guess who doing all the work, Arshavin collecting the ball on halfway, running at Ooijer down the left, before somehow digging out a peach of a cross which removed Van der Sar from the equation, and allowed Torbinskiy to slide in at the far post and apply the crucial touch from centimetres out. It was simply majestic, the look on Van der Sar’s face in the aftermath said it all, he couldn’t believe what had happened, and how it had happened. There were seven minutes left
Enough time, it turned out, for the boy wonder to at last add his name to a scoresheet that he had deserved more than anyone to grace. And it was a typically sublime piece of play, his movement across Ooijer allowing him to reach a long throw from the right, his body feint taking him clear of the shell-shocked Blackburn man, and his angled strike taking a nick off Heitinga which sent it flashing through Van der Sar’s legs and into the net. If Van der Sar, arguably the best keeper on show over the past fortnight, was unlucky, for Arshavin the good fortune was the least he deserved. When the final whistle went, all cameras seeked him out. As did his coach. Rightly so.
When he swapped shirts with unused Dutch sub Mario Melchiot, it didn’t seem right. Arshavin’s shirt should have been taken by someone who had given as much to the proceedings, but then again, who could that possibly be?