| WROCLAW, June 8
WROCLAW, June 8 Russia surging forward with
speed and finesse and Andrei Arshavin actually affecting a game
positively with his laidback but at times exquisite approach -
it could have been 2008 all over again.
Their 4-1 thrashing of the Czech Republic in their Euro 2012
Group A opener on Friday was soccer at its best but the question
on Russian and rival fans' lips is: "Can they keep it going?"
Four years ago Russia and Arshavin, an almost unknown
conjurer of football magic who had evaded all of Europe's top
scouts for years, dazzled the championship before they lost
their way in a semi-final defeat by winners Spain.
This time they mean business again and may even have a more
rounded team. Their defence looked solid for the most part, but
whether the notoriously flaky soccer nation can continue to
produce such flowing football remains to be seen.
The incisiveness with which Russia carved out openings with
quick one-touch passing on the counter attack was a delight to
behold, whether Arshavin meant the defence-splitting pass to
Roman Shirokov for the beautifully dinked second goal or not.
It may have been meant for Alexander Kerzhakov, but it was
great football and exactly what a big tournament needed on its
opening night. Some glamour, some swagger, some je ne sais quoi.
The heavy rain in the hour before kickoff in Wroclaw, after
the day had started sunny, slickened up the surface just
perfectly for the Russians to move the ball along the ground at
pace once the drizzle had stopped.
The other key factor was Czech coach Michal Bilek choosing
the marauding Michal Kadlec at left back.
He left gaping holes in defence without being productive up
the field and Alan Dzagoyev, the scorer of the first on 15
minutes, had all the time in the world to blast wastefully wide
in a chance which should have put Dick Advocaat's men 3-0 up by
The Czechs finally woke in the second half and produced two
pieces of brilliance which Arshavin and Shirokov would have been
proud of, Jaroslav's Plasil perfect slide rule pass allowing
Vaclav Pilar to round the goalkeeper with aplomb to make it 2-1.
Arshavin was back to being the forward Arsenal fans used to
know when they signed him a year after Euro 2008, rather than
the lethargic and uninterested player of recent seasons who
found his way back at Zenit St Petersburg on loan.
The wonderfully simple but beautifully executed pass behind
the Czech backline which Kerzhakov somehow contrived to ruin by
firing hopelessly wide yet again was another piece of Arshavin
art, not a masterpiece but very close.
He looked leaner and fitter too having also helped the
Russians wallop Italy 3-0 in a recent friendly. It may not be a
one-off, whatever long-suffering Arsenal fans will say.
The fact seven Zenit players were in the Russian side added
to the image of a well-gelled bunch who knew exactly where their
team mate was running and what sort of pass he might like.
By contrast, the Czechs looked a shadow of their previous
incarnations as challengers, if not quite contenders in previous
tournaments with the likes of Pavel Nedved and Patrick Berger
Yet, they could easily have made it 2-2 on 74 minutes had
Vyacheslav Malafeyev not been able to grab Tomas Rosicky's drive
at the second attempt with Czech forwards dangerously near.
That would have been an injustice on Russia, and they soon
went on to score a smashing third through Dzagoyev and an even
better fourth though substitute Roman Pavlyuchenko.
Another injustice was that Arshavin was not on the
scoresheet, even if he did not have many shots. He did not need
to, he was too busy creating for others.
He stood out not just because of his fluorescent captain's
armband and white boots. He stood out because possibly he is
almost back to his the best.
(Editing by justin Palmer)