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The Unlikely Return of a Forgotten Man

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Marat Izmailov in action for Sporting against Benfica.

Although injuries may have robbed Dick Advocaat of a couple of his preferred squad for Euro 2012, the Russia boss takes a squad of 23 to Poland and Ukraine which contains very little in the way of surprise. The uncapped Kirill Nababkin and emergency draft of veteran Roman Sharonov into central defensive cover may have provided analysts with talking points, but neither man is likely to see playing time unless injury or suspension strike, and will find themselves watching on as the preferred XI take to the field.

Russia’s wildcard then, is not to be found in the selection of defensive backups. Whilst the choice of Alexander Kokorin, the Dinamo Moscow forward, may have raised a few eyebrows, again he is primarily in the squad as a reserve and to gain experience of a major international tournament. The 21-year old has a bright future ahead of him, but with an average of just a goal every nine games for his club, Kokorin will not start up front and finds himself well down the pecking order on the flanks.

However, one of the men he could be competing with for a berth on the wing is a certain Marat Izmailov, an ethnic Tatar who left the country four years ago and has been largely forgotten by domestic followers of the national team. Despite making his debut for Russia at just 19 years of age, and competing in a World Cup just a year later, Izmailov all but disappeared from international football in the middle of the decade, making three appearances in 2006 but falling out of favour with incoming manager Guus Hiddink never to be seen again.

That is, until now. Without a single appearance in the previous six years, Advocaat has taken the bold step of calling Izmailov back into the international fold, with his versatility on the right flank undoubtedly a key aspect of the manager’s thought process. It is an unlikely return for one of Russia’s few footballing exports, and with Advocaat employing a system which relies on the full backs for width, Izmailov now finds himself competing with the current incumbent, Zenit’s Alexander Anyukov, for a starting berth against the Czech Republic.

Although ethnically Tatar, Izmailov is unable to trace his personal history back to Tatarstan, being born in the country’s capital with Communism very much alive in the Soviet Union. His footballing apprenticeship was performed in the youth squads of Lokomotiv Moscow, and with the railway club the only side in Russia with representation at four different levels of the pyramid, he soon found himself playing competitive football in the club’s reserve squad. A single season in the lower leagues was enough for him to catch the eye of first team boss Yuri Semin, the man who put the Lokomotiv name firmly back on the Russian footballing map, and he was drafted into the main squad in time for the 2001 season.

His rapid progression continued, earning the promising Izmailov honours as Young Player of the Year in his debut top flight season and playing in all bar one of Lokomotiv’s 30 league games as well as clinching the national cup. Although he played a large role in securing his club’s first Russian title the following season, injury problems limited him to just 14 appearances and two goals, but more importantly would signal the beginning of a problem which has blighted his career ever since.

Indeed, constant niggles and more serious injuries meant that only once more did he manage to complete more than two thirds of a full league season – just three games missed in 2003 was followed by 12 and 14 in subsequent years, and it soon became apparent that despite his obvious talents, his succession of managers simply could not afford to place too much responsibility in the hands of a man so often absent. In 2007, his place in the squad was to be found on the substitutes’ bench, and a move away from his only club beckoned.

An unexpected move to Portugal arose as Sporting took him on loan for the season, and after clinching the country’s Super Cup with a goal on his debut, his form and health improved once more. He played an impressive 47 times in that loan season, showing more than enough for the Portuguese side to part with almost £4m and make the deal permanent, and he was only prevented from matching that number the following year by a poor European campaign. Still, away from the domestic limelight in Iberia, Hiddink persisted in leaving him out of the squad and he was forced to watch at home as Russia shocked the world with their performance at Euro 2008, vindicating the manager’s choice to go ahead with domestically-based talent.

Health problems once again flared up, and to a greater extent – in 2010-11 he made just three appearances, such was the severity of his knee injury. Lengthy periods on the sidelines plagued his most recent campaign, but a goal every three games in the league and glimpses of his pacy, direct style did enough to impress Advocaat. Despite not featuring in any of the qualification matches and not playing international football for over half a decade, Izmailov’s name was included in the final 23 for Poland and Ukraine.

Having had doubts cast on his very career due to the recurrence and extent of his injuries, to have rejoined his Russian team mates for the tournament will no doubt have justified his own perseverance and the support of Sporting’s medical staff. Although he is far from certain to start later today against the Czechs, two starts in warm-up games against Uruguay and Lithuania will give him hope, particularly as Advocaat looks for a wider alternative to his usual narrow formation. Should Izmailov feature in the tournament proper, it will provide the perfect end to a tale with the potential to end so tragically.

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