WROCLAW: 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 yesterday 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 halftime.
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 dazzling defenders.
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 score sheet, 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.