Russia 4-1 Czech Republic: But Have We Zenit All Before?

The second game of the day involved the two other members of Group A: Russia and the Czech Republic. It had quite the task to live up to the excitement that match that had preceded it had conjured, but where the first game had been quite an even contest, this was more akin to a rabbit in a fight with a bear. The spirit was most definitely present but really, it was a fruitless errand. Russia were reminiscent of their side of 2008, which made the semi finals, only with one very poignant difference – Andrey Arshavin was eligible for the first two games, where he had not been four years ago. For the diminutive playmaker, it had been an eventful four years, moving to Arsenal, becoming a hero and then becoming the scapegoat from certain (more idiotic and senseless) corners and going on loan back to Zenit St. Petersberg in order to get games ahead of the recurrence of the tournament that had been his début to the wider football world.

 

But to those who had watched Zenit in the Champions League, Arshavin was a known figure, at the time. To those who had not, he was a new discovery. One of the most enjoyable facets of international tournaments is seeing the more hidden players from each country build their reputations to a greater audience. One of those this year, off the strength of his first showing, is CSKA Moscow’s Alan Dzagoev; while he is a well-known talent amongst people who have seen him before, to those who have not he was a new man in town – one who will be exhaustingly linked to every team in the Premier League by the media. But I digress: Dzagoev received the ball in the centre circle from Arshavin, evading challenges from two Czech players as he strode forward. He then released Konstantin Zyryanov down the right-hand side, who sent a marvellous cross to the head of Aleksandr Kerzhakov. The Zenit striker’s header struck the inside of the post and bounced out, perfectly into the path of Dzagoev, rounding off the move in which he was so instrumental.

 

Between the two goals, Dzagoev was presented with another brilliant chance, only to send a relatively easy effort into the crowd. But Russia did not have long to wait for their second. It was the result of a beautiful through ball by Arshavin. Around 30 yards out, slightly to the left of the goal, Arshavin spied Roman Shirokov sneaking outside Michal Kadlec – who had an awful evening – and picked out a perfect pass between the two Czech centre halves. At first the pass looked overhit and misplaced; so much so that Kerzhakov is seen to turn around and look at Arshavin making a gesture which, in any language, translates as ‘what kind of pass was that?!’. Only Arshavin had seen beyond the former Sevilla man and Shirokov stole in to chip the ball perfectly over Petr Cech. Russia looked rampant; the Czech Republic looked hopeless.

 

Early in the second half, the Czechs managed to gain a foothold back into the game. Jaroslav Plasil, like Arshavin had for Russia’s second, opened up the defence with a fantastic through ball to Vaclav Pilar, who rounded Vychaslev Malafeev and squeezed the ball in before any Russian defender could block it. But it did not greatly alter the momentum of the play. The Czech team were still struggling to create anything and with Tomas Rosicky, their main source of creativity, marked into anonymity, they were unable to make the chances needed to draw the scores level. Russia appeared not to have noticed that their opponents had got to within a goal of them, continuing in the fashion that they had before the break. What was so impressive about Russia was their maintenance in the intensity of their attacks, even when 2-0 ahead. They continued to press and pour forward at 2-1 the same way they had before the Czech’s goal and after they recouped their distance.

 

However, this seemed to be in spite of Kerzhakov’s best efforts. He had Dzagoev and Arshavin providing goalscoring chances a-plenty, but his stats speak for themselves: 73 minutes; 7 attempts on goal; 0 on target. Undoubtedly a talented forward it was, as they say, just not his night. His replacement was former Spurs striker Roman Pavlyuchenko. Russia made clear that they had no plans to sit and defend their lead, but to add to it. And that, they did. Pavlyuchenko spotted Dzagoev just outside the penalty area. One touch took him forward, the second was a vicious strike from the 18-yard line, which flew past Cech. The Chelsea goalkeeper could have done better with the effort, but it was no more than Russia and Dzagoev’s performances deserved. Their two-goal margin was restored; Russia could now sit, content with their lead.

 

Only they added another shortly afterwards – undoubtedly the goal of the tournament… so far. Arshavin broke into the Czech half and sent Pavlyuchenko onto a free left hand side. The Russian captain ran on ahead of him, but it was clear that the striker had no plans to give him the ball. Cutting into the area, he held off Roman Hubnik and going away from goal, he smashed his shot towards the near post, directly into the top corner. Outstanding play from the Lokomotiv Moscow man – perhaps giving Harry Redknapp some food for thought, as he awaits another year without Champions League football, considering that Pavlyuchenko left Spurs in search of playing time.

 

While a Russian win was to be expected, the margin was less so. The reaction of the Czech players must be immediate and strong. With the loss and the earlier draw between the group’s other two team, they are now bottom of the group, with a goal difference of -3. Their next game is against Greece and it is a game which they will need to win, so they must not languish in the mire of misery that this defeat could cause. They will need to recover and use the loss as motivation to push forward.

 

Russia looked better than many expected. Immediately, as earlier in this piece, comparisons will be drawn with their 2008 side. While they looked electric at times, they looked rather pathetic as they were taken apart by Spain. Their desire to score even when comfortably ahead must be an attitude carried through the rest of their games, as must their heavy pressing of the opposition. They looked like a team with hunger and with the potential to spring a surprise, but so have many other teams after one game. They must continue their form and maintain their intensity.

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