Eurospot: Russia awaits Arshavin rebirth



The icy grip in which the city has been held during the long, arduous winter begins to loosen and - as snatches of sunlight glisten on the slippery dome of Saint Isaac's Cathedral and icicles cascade from the roofs of the grand boutiques straddling fashionable thoroughfare Nevsky Prospekt - St Petersburg awakens from a long hibernation and emerges full of promise for the spring.

This year, this annual process of reawakening has coincided with the return of one of St Petersburg's most famous sons to the Baltic Sea port. And when Andrei Arshavin joined Zenit on loan from Arsenal just prior to the close of the Russian transfer window, it was in the hope that his career - frozen in stasis in recent seasons - would enjoy a similar rebirth.

With Euro 2012 less than three months away, Mother Russia is counting on it.

Though Zenit quickly filled up their club shops with number 29 shirts following Arshavin's return, his loan move is no marketing ploy, or a ego trip for a celebrity who, as the face of Lays crisps, is essentially Russia's answer to Gary Lineker, both in his dedication to lubricating the market for potato-based snacks and his seeming reluctance to break out into anything beyond a stroll when on the pitch.

No, as Arsenal made explicit in the press release confirming his departure, Arsene Wenger's decision to allow Arshavin to return home was designed to "maximise his opportunities for regular first-team football ahead of Euro 2012".

As captain of the national side under Dick Advocaat, the most talented Russian player of his generation and one of only two players along with defender Vasili Berezutsky who appeared in all 10 qualifiers, there was no chance whatsoever that Arshavin's participation in the tournament would be in doubt, but his form at club level over the past 12 months has still been of deep concern to supporters of the Russian national side.

Arshavin's alarming malaise at Arsenal - which eventually resulted in him becoming a habitual bench-sitter in a season that, prior to his move to Zenit, had seen him start only eight games and score one goal in the Premier League - left the forward desperately bereft of form. Meanwhile, his dispiriting body language became allied to a rather bulky frame that indicated he was not exactly operating at maximum effort.

Following his first training session at Zenit under Italian coach Luciano Spalletti, Arshavin did little to dispel such suggestions, telling the Russian press: "It was very tough. They made us work hard in the gym. I didn’t expect that immediately after returning from the national team."

However, a significant element of Arsenal supporters would probably counter that Arshavin has found hard work to be anathema for some time now: a promising start to his career in North London - and four goals at Anfield in particular – has receded far, far into the distant memory, explosion being replaced by inertia.

Since leaving North London, Arshavin has played 55, 66 and then 71 minutes in his three Zenit games and is beginning to enjoy the first-team exposure that had come to elude him at Arsenal. Recovering match fitness is a crucial objective of his loan spell – and quite remarkably his performance in his most recent match against Dynamo Moscow saw him described by Sovetsky Sport as "the hardest-working… player on the field" – but it is also hoped that in returning home Arshavin will rediscover some of the love for the game that made him such an engaging and downright charming figure during his first spell at the club.

The player who took team after team apart with his ebullient talent during Zenit’s run to their UEFA Cup triumph in 2008, dazzled brilliantly at Euro 2008 and then so enamoured Arsenal fans with his cheeky "I am Gooner" greeting and rather bizarre pronouncements on his official website slowly, sadly, transformed into a joyless, listless figure, whose penultimate performance for Arsenal this season saw him booed onto the pitch when he replaced Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in a defeat to Manchester United in January.

That public denunciation was the culmination of a protracted process that saw Arshavin seemingly lose enthusiasm for the game. It is impossible to identify just what provoked this sustained dip, but Russia’s failure to qualify for the 2010 World Cup certainly did not help the forward’s mood. A play-off defeat to Slovenia in November 2009 hit Arshavin incredibly hard. As captain he was held particularly responsible and was even the subject of wild accusations that he and some of his team-mates had been out drinking before the crucial encounters.

He complained later that month: "I have not recovered after the Slovenian fiasco. I can call my state 'prostration'. I don't know what I can compare it to, though many things happened in my career. My loved ones tell me now that I must forget what happened as soon as possible. I need to turn my attention to the club’s matters, but it is easily said but not easily done. At the moment nothing spurs me to life. When Arsene Wenger asked me how I was feeling I honestly said that I just did not want to play football. He spoke to me, advised to switch to new things but it does not help at the moment."

Though his malaise became ever more entrenched during the first half of the current season, change appeared to be in the air in November when he struck a more upbeat tone: "Since Russia qualified for Euro 2012 I’ve felt completely relaxed and comfortable. Hopefully that will show in my performances, because mentally I feel much better than before. International results are very important to me and it’s vital that Russia go to big tournaments."

But by this juncture, his status at Arsenal had irreparably slipped. International success was not permitted to translate into club performances with the gradual emergence of Oxlade-Chamblerlain and later the renaissance of Tomas Rosicky and Arshavin continued to be placed on the bench, offering too little when instructed to enter the field of play by Wenger. That flicker of optimism was shrouded all too quickly by a sullen mask.

Given he is clearly both physically and mentally flat at present, a holistic experience will benefit Arshavin at Zenit and Spalletti appears encouraged by what he has seen so far. "He looks better and better with each match," said the Italian following a 5-1 win over Dynamo on March 16. "I can't judge his form. He worked hard in training at Arsenal but he lacked match practice and, as a consequence, playing shape. But he'll continue to improve."

Despite some encouraging noises from Spalletti, though, there is some residual scepticism around Arshavin's return to his home country.

Some in the Russian press have characterised Arshavin as a player in decline and Zenit as foolhardy for bringing him back to the club. Moreover, some have even doubted his value to the national team with players such as the exciting, if somewhat inconsistent, CSKA Moscow playmaker Alan Dzagoev emerging from the ranks.

Clearly Arshavin still has much to prove despite his status as Russia's most famous sports personality, but former international Yegor Titov tackled the cynics this week when telling "Let's be honest, Arshavin is the only Russian player (of his generation) who has shone in Europe. You know, I keep reading things like, 'Why did he return? What the hell do we need him for?', and all this. Listen, we do need Arshavin. We definitely do."

It is a long time since Arshavin was considered so indispensable in North London, and, while his reputation in Russia remains strong, it is clear he will have to use his time at Zenit to melt a few more hearts before belief is fully restored in this most enigmatic of talents.

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