Sheva aims to get back on his feet
After a season on the Milan bench, the Ukrainian comes to Wembley tomorrow hoping to revive his career
Vivo. Alive. That, as
Gazzetta dello Sport put it yesterday, is how Andrei Shevchenko hopes he will feel when his return to the city he has come to call home concludes late tomorrow evening and Ukraine have faced England. After the mind-deadening course of the last few years, he probably feels that London owes him that much.
He certainly felt the blood in his veins when life in west London started, his goal in the 2006 Community Shield seemingly suggesting that he would be "King Andrei" at Jose Mourinho's Chelsea, just as he had in Milan for a generation. But the only goal-scoring King Andrei from Ukraine these days answers to the surname of Voronin, a player reborn at Hertha Berlin after his travails under Rafael Benitez at Anfield and Shevchenko has found no such renaissance back at Milan, where he returned on loan to Carlo Ancelotti's side this season after Silvio Berlusconi rescued him from Chelsea.
Long afternoons warming an Italian bench have ended with five minutes on the pitch at the end, generally after Filippo Inzaghi has walked off to a standing ovation, and publicly he is polite about this. "I said I would be prepared to accept anything," was his latest pronouncement on the situation yesterday. But privately, the player who scored 22 times in 75 appearances for Chelsea is indignant at the way that things have turned out under Ancelotti and intends to take his leave of Milan permanently this summer, to return to London and an uncertain future. "I don't know where I'll be next season. I have to speak to Chelsea," he said. A touted move to the US does not interest him.
Shevchenko insists that after 901 minutes of competitive football all season he has no divine right to make his first appearance at the new Wembley for Oleksiy Mykhailychenko's Ukraine. "For the national team coach it is not easy to put a player on the pitch who isn't playing," he said. But a role with his compatriots, among whom he stands three goals short of the Oleg Blokin's 42-goal record, appears to be all there is left.
The course of those Chelsea years is well known. Shevchenko's wife, Kristen Pazik, whirling around west London with Roman Abramovich's first wife Irina before he arrived; Mourinho then making it clear that a player he was receiving under sufferance would fit around Chelsea, and not the other way around. The recent Milan experience has been much the same and there has been something mildly tragic about the sight of the 32-year-old swapping one club's bench for another, celebrating Milan's goals with brave face from the touchline. Ancelotti has never explained Shevchenko's absence, the Italian media has not questioned it and Pazik seems worrying satisfied by his absence, too. She has remained at their residence neighbouring Wentworth golf club in Surrey, insisting on the importance of their children Jordan and Christian's English education, prompting Italian commentators to ask what that says for their relationship. A hurtful outcome, all told, for the fourth highest scorer in European club competition, who took the Ballon d'Or just five years ago after helping Milan to the 2003 Champions League trophy.
Shevchenko, whose awkwardness has not always helped his public profile, grappled with a description yesterday of how it feels to run up the touchline to warm up, only to return to your seat. "It's difficult to read your own feelings when you are not playing," he said. "You don't feel considered and you know there are a lot of people ahead of you. You have to accept these things and react the best way possible" Of what, on hindsight, was a wretched decision to answer Abramovich's call to Chelsea, he insisted: "I don't regret anything."
There are no guarantees that he will appear at Wembley tomorrow night, though there is a feeling that a starting place will be found – perhaps as a withdrawn striker behind the in-form Voronin – for a player who captained the side in Ukraine's goalless draw against Croatia. Shevchenko, whose ratio of a goal in nearly every other game for Ukraine shows he is still to be feared, half concedes that a strong performance tomorrow will be a way of reminding Ancelotti and others what he has to offer – "It's just a way of doing what I love doing, which is playing football" – though Milan's pressing need to build through youth will make that a tall order.
His trip back to London apparently includes an encounter with David Beckham and in the example of England's milestone man and Juventus' Alessandro del Piero, there is perhaps evidence that his days in the elite may not necessarily be over. "Both those players think in the same way as me," Shevchenko reflected. "As long as the body responds and the head is still there you are not finished. I am still here."
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