Arsenal: After Euro 2008 We Thought Russia's Andrey Arshavin Was The Next Zidane
Andrey Arshavin, much like Wayne Rooney this summer, was picked for Russia's European Championship squad in 2008 despite being unavailable for the first two group games because of suspension. The diminutive playmaker started the tournament as a relatively unknown quantity - admired by those who had watched him inspire his Zenit St. Petersburg team to UEFA Cup glory - but certainly not the superstar he became after those Euros.
At the end of June 2008 Andrey Sergeyevich Arshavin had the world of football at his feet. At 27-years-of-age he was in the prime phase of his career for a big move to one of the big European leagues - and having been the star of Guus Hiddink's Russia side that made the Euro semi-finals - he was one of the most coveted attackers on the planet.
Arshavin's first appearance in that tournament came in his country's last group game against Sweden, with Russia needing a win to ensure qualification from Group D. Spain had thumped the Eastern European side in their opening encounter, and Russia had only narrowly overcome Greece in the following game. Arshavin came straight back into the side, starting in the hole behind tall front-man Roman Pavlyuchenko. The supposed gamble by Hiddink to take the banned trequartista to the competition paid off spectacularly as Arshavin ran the show from start to finish, doubling Russia's lead in the second half and sending them through to the quarter-finals.
He played with a smile on his face and looked to be devoid of the big-game panic that afflicts many international stars
That earned the Russians a meeting with the Dutch, a game that looked on paper to be a step too far for the former Soviet Union side, but Arshavin & Co. pulled off the shock of the tournament by overcoming favoured opposition to triumph 3-1 and book their place in the last for of Euro 2008. It was in this game that people began to really sit up and take notice of Andrey. His tireless performance was key to Russia's win, and in extra-time he provided an assist and a goal while others around him were suffering from fatigue, to knock out Holland. He played with a smile on his face and looked to be devoid of the big-game panic that afflicts many international stars - you only need to consider Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi's performances for their national sides to consider how impressive Arshavin was.
Talk had already turned to where Arshavin would be plying his trade next season, before Russia had even taken to the field against Spain. The Zenit man looked to have broken bridges with his club side, saying "I never wanted to play in the Russian Premier League", and a summer transfer seemed certain.
Unfortunately the Leningrad-born attacker could not repeat the heroics he showed against Sweden and Holland, and along with the entire Russia side, did not put in a performance worthy of the team's efforts during their run to the semis. Spain - who went on to lift the trophy - proved too strong for their plucky opponents and dismantled Russia over the 90 minutes to win 3-0. Their was no shame in the defeat, as this Spain side went on to add the World Cup to their Euro triumph two years later, but there must be a sense of what-could-have-been that still sits with fans of the world's eighth most populous nation.
It may have been a hard luck story for his country, but a personal adventure at club-level was only just beginning for Arshavin. Enticing suitors enough with two stupendously exciting displays at the Euro's looking every bit the perfect number ten, Arshavin was hot property in the European football market. His January trackers Newcastle were now blown out of the water, as reports of a bid from Barcelona meant the Euro 2008 star would have his pick of clubs.
Andrey Arshavin: “I never wanted to play in the Russian Premier League”
Barcelona's €15m offer fell short of Zenit's valuation of £22m, undoubtedly high but arguably reflective of the player's stock at the time. The Russian club knew they had to deal with Arshavin's impending departure at some point, and they were determined to get the highest price possible for their most valuable asset. Barcelona's hesitation allowed Spurs in to submit a £16m offer. This was again rejected, and it began to look like Arshavin wouldn't be allowed to leave, despite the best efforts of the midfielder to escape.
As an Arsenal fan at this point I was watching on with both eyes, knowing that Arshavin was ready-made for our side which at the time was still re-building from the Invicibles and needed a touch of direct attacking, pace and trickery which he possessed in abundance. Yet realising that if Barcelona weren't getting anywhere then it was unlikely he would end up at the Emirates Stadium, despite our heavily reported interest. At one stage I was seriously worried he would end up at White Hart Lane, and the thought of Euro 2008's most impressive player going to Spurs was enough to cause sleepless nights.
Even so, Arshavin did indeed stay in Russia until the January transfer window in 2009, where the Gunners rekindled interest in the player - as his performances had dropped, (probably due to his desire to move) the club was confident a deal could be done. Talk about last-minute. This was a transfer that literally went to the wire, with the move only officially confirmed on February 2 - with an English snowstorm, fax complications and Zenit's stubborness almost causing the move to collapse. But it didn't matter, we had snapped up Andrey Arshavin, for what appeared good value at around £15m.
At one stage I was seriously worried he would end up at White Hart Lane, and the thought of Euro 2008’s most impressive player going to Spurs was enough to cause sleepless nights.
Excitement was hard to contain around Highbury and Islington at home games in the first few months following Andrey's move. 'Arshavin' shirts were a popular sale, and talk of the Russian was comparing him to the great number 10's - world-beaters like Zidane. Perhaps us Gooners were a little over-eager, but we really thought this guy was the real deal. And for nearly a year-and-a-half he did his best to live up to expectations.
I can scarcely remember being so keen on a player so soon as I was with Arshavin after his breath-taking goal against Blackburn. By mid-March he had started to get more opportunities in the red and white, and took his chance with class and style against the Lancashire club. We won that match 4-0, and his name was on the scoresheet and sung loud from the terraces as he picked up the ball out wide, effortlessly drifted past his marker and lifted the ball above Paul Robinson into the back of the net. He had arrived - we had our superstar.
A month later he produced the performance that will live with all Arsenal fans forever - a four goal splurge as we drew 4-4 with Liverpool at Anfield. Scoring all of our strikes, he played with a manner that made a high-profile Premier League encounter look like a doddle. He slotted the first, smashed home the second, negotiated space well for the third and completed the quartet with a beautifully composed finish late on. Seeing the little man wheel away from Pepe Reina with four fingers held up is a moment I will never forget.
Arshavin went on to enjoy more inspirational moments for Arsenal - the most memorable being his long range pile-driver against Manchester United and the winner against Barcelona in the Champions League to name just two. But he never fully lived up to his potential, in subsequent seasons losing interest with the game at the same rate as his mid-drift enlarged.
Seeing the little man wheel away from Pepe Reina with four fingers held up is a moment I will never forget
He was in and out of the team during his four years in North London, before Arsene Wenger finally tired of his enigmatic forward in January of this year and loaned him back to Zenit. It was with regret that many fans saw him leave, but most realised he had lost his way in the capital and the arrival of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain allayed fears of missing the Russian.
It remains to be seen whether Arshavin will come back to Arsenal this summer, as another impressive showing at this summer's Euros could force his way back into Wenger's thoughts. Even if he does leave permanently when his loan deal ends in July, Arshavin will always have a special place in the hearts of many Gunners fans. Unfulfilled potential perhaps, but he offered us some outrageous performances and seemed like a genuinely interesting character amongst the swathes of boring and predictable footballers.
If this summer is to be a swansong for Andrey, as an Arsenal fan I would like Arshavin to go out with a bang, playing the free-flowing football that made me think we had signed the next Zinedine Zidane after his performances in Eur0 2008.
Go on Andrey, light up the Euros this summer like you did four years ago, if you can be arsed.
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