On 28th August last year, Russian fans began to write off their chances of competing for, and in some cases even qualifying for, this summer’s European Championships. With crucial games against FYR Macedonia and the Republic of Ireland on the horizon, national team manager Dick Advocaat would have found himself willing the Moscow derby between Spartak and league leaders CSKA to be a dull affair, with none of the ferocity usually associated clashes between the two city rivals.
The pulsating 2-2 draw which followed, including a wondergoal from Spartak’s Emmanuel Emenike, was far from tepid, a strong start from the home side at Luzhniki undone by some amateurish defending before the Nigerian’s strike in the second half. Combined with Zenit’s 5-0 thrashing of FC Krasnodar on the same day, Leonid Slutsky’s Army Men found themselves with company at the top of the table for the first time all season – little did they know that Zenit would go on to take the championship with considerable ease.
However, the major talking point from that match was not the shocking Spartak defence nor Emenike’s glorious finish, but a passage of play involving Spartak’s other striker, the Brazilian Welliton. Midway through the first half, with CSKA goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev racing from his goal to make a headed clearance, the forward leapt up to challenge for the ball. Clearly second best, and with a last-minute look at the goalkeeper’s positioning, Welliton crashed into Akinfeev without getting near the ball, knocking the Russian number one off balance and compromising his landing. Minutes later Akinfeev was stretchered off, the damage proving to be a cruciate ligament injury which would put him on the sidelines for a minimum of six months.
Whilst the aftermath focused on Welliton’s actions and the unsavoury response of some CSKA fans, those with a longer-term perspective began to consider the damage to their national team. Akinfeev is undoubtedly Russia’s best goalkeeper – having broken into the team at just 18 years of age, the 26 year old CSKA captain has already collected 52 caps for his country, and could find himself threatening Victor Onopko’s appearance record if fitness allows. His long-term absence was a key element in CSKA’s fading title challenge, with loanee Vladimir Gabulov and then Sergei Chepchugov failing to provide adequate replacement for the talismanic goalkeeper.
At the present time however, Russia are blessed with a series of goalkeepers on the next level down, beneath the likes of Akinfeev but more than capable of dealing with what, on paper at least, was a weak qualifying groups for the European Championships. Gabulov and Dinamo’s Anton Shunin found themselves taking on a more important role for their country, but it was Vyacheslav Malafeev, goalkeeper for national champions Zenit, who would take the gloves from the injured Akinfeev.
Akinfeev recovered to take part in the last half a dozen games for CSKA, the club taking no chances with his injury by bringing him back into the fold earlier. The recovery allowed Dick Advocaat to pick him with confidence in his 23 man squad, but a combination of little match practice and Malafeev’s Zenit conceding the league’s fewest goals meant that his immediate return to the starting line-up was by no means guaranteed. However, with his return a psychological boost in addition to his obvious talents, there were few betting against him lining up against the Czech Republic on the opening matchday.
However, just days before the big kick-off, it emerged that Akinfeev’s injury had not completely subsided. Fluid on the damaged knee did not require extensive treatment or time out of training, but the latest development meant that even on the night before the game, nobody aside from Advocaat himself knew which of Akinfeev and Malafeev would take the starting berth. In the end, the vote went to the latter, and across Russia a number of dissenters began to cast their doubts on whether the Zenit keeper could cope with the pressure, citing previous shaky performances in big games as their evidence.
Ultimately, his own standard of play was almost irrelevant as Russia ran out 4-1 winners, and there was little he could do about the opponent’s goal – the pass making it easy for Vaclav Pilar to round him before slotting in the consolation. He kept the gloves against Poland, the manager, not surprisingly, unwilling to make such a key change midway through the tournament, and it soon became apparent that he would have a great deal more work to do as the Poles performed far better than Russia’s first opponents.
Malafeev was beaten twice – once by an clearly offside Eugen Polanski, and later by a stunning strike from Jakub Blaszczykowski which would claim a point for his country. Those two instances aside, Malafeev showed his doubters exactly why Advocaat had put his trust in him. Poland registered nine shots on target, yet were limited to just a single goal. A point blank save with his legs in the first half, a great close range stop from Robert Lewandowski and a flying catch to deny Sebastian Boenisch were perhaps the pick of the bunch, and as the game ebbed and flowed in an increasingly open second half, in it not unreasonable to suggest that Russia have Malafeev to thank for preserving their point.
Whilst his Polish performance will by no means cement as Russia’s first choice goalkeeper in the long run, Malafeev’s impressive showing should guarantee him the gloves for the remainder of the tournament at least. More than that, it will prove as a reminder to critics that Akinfeev is not the only Russian goalkeeper capable of competing at the highest level, and that his club did not concede the fewest league goals last season by luck. Opportunities is such a critical position come by rarely at best, and so far Malafeev has done his utmost to ensure that he takes them.