Russia were abject in their first game and sublime in their third: what a difference one player can make.
Yes, there is a slight gap in class between Spain, who beat them 4-1 11 days ago, and Sweden, whom they hammered 2-0 just over a week later, but that alone cannot explain the discrepancy. It is rare in the modern game to see individual players make such an impact, but it is hard to believe that Russia's improvement is down to anything other than the return of Andrei Arshavin.
As stupid dismissals go, it is tough to beat punching an Andorran, particularly not six minutes from the end of a game that is about to secure your country's place at the European Championship. That was what Arshavin did last November, though, and in a sense he was lucky that he was banned for only two games.
In practical terms that suspension meant that Russia's whole build-up to the tournament was based merely on attempting to get to a position from which they could qualify from the group stage when Arshavin returned, which perhaps goes some way to explaining their lacklustre showing in the opening match against the Spanish.
Arshavin blamed his red card on the pressure of captaincy, and it was notable that when Sergei Semak, recalled to the national side after two years, was handed the armband for this tournament, Arshavin was outspokenly supportive. The responsibilities of being a playmaker, evidently, are more than enough.
Arshavin is a playmaker in the traditional sense. As waves of red shirts swarmed over Sweden in Innsbruck on Wednesday, with full-backs suddenly emerging in the opposing box and players interchanging with bewildering speed, the figure at the centre was always Arshavin, coaxing and cajoling, dribbling and directing. There is such an obvious flair and intelligence to his play, such an evident love for the artful, that it is no great surprise to learn that he holds a university diploma in fashion design.
The comparisons between that performance and the Total Football of Rinus Michels' Netherlands side of the early Seventies have probably been overdone but there was a clear parallel between Arshavin's display and the role of Johan Cruyff for the Dutch. "Every hive," as Anatoly Zelentsov, collaborator to the great Soviet Union coach Valeri Lobanovski, once said, "needs its queen."
Arshavin is quick, comfortable with either foot and a fine finisher, but the great doubt about him has always been his physique. He is no waif like Croatia's Luka Modric, but neither is he a Zinedine Zidane-style artist-bruiser. What he shares with both Modric and Zidane is an almost preternatural awareness of those around him.
Arshavin was the creative leader of the Zenit St Petersburg side that finally won its first Russian league title last season, and was then man of the match as they beat Rangers in the Uefa Cup final in Manchester last month. The £12m-rated 27-year-old, though, is unlikely still to be there in the autumn to mastermind their first Champions League campaign. Zenit successfully saw off interest from Everton and Newcastle during the January transfer market, but their manager Dick Advocaat admitted yesterday that Arshavin is keen to leave.
An announcement from Zenit's sporting director Konstantin Sarsania on Arshavin's future was expected yesterday, but it has now been postponed until Monday at the earliest. By then, if he performs against the Netherlands today as he did against Sweden, his market value will have risen significantly.Reuse content