JONATHAN WILSON: The Arshavin enigma

There was something almost cruel about the way the fixtures fell.

As Arsenal beat Liverpool, Andriy Arshavin made his first appearance for Zenit St Petersburg since his return to Russia.

Both in Liverpool and Moscow, you suspect, there were people thinking back to that April night in 2009 when Arshavin scored four for Arsenal at Anfield.

His start in English football had been decent enough. He’d shown flashes of the skill that had illuminated Euro 2008, scoring against Blackburn and in an away win at Wigan, and had demonstrated such fitness and tenacity that he’d lasted the full 90 minutes in eight of his 10 starts to that point.

The great Spartak midfielder Yegor Titov spoke once of how he felt sick every time the wheels of the plane left the tarmac in Moscow, a line that seemed to encapsulate the experience of Russians abroad.

Many tried, but very few settled outside their homeland. Arshavin, though, seemed different. He had a quirky sense of humour, had an intelligence and sense of irony and wrote strange semi-autobiographical books in which he pontificated with a deadpan self-mockery on topics from women drivers to the probability of alien life.

Footballers who succeed abroad tend to be those who explore their new environment — in the way that, say, Juan Mata keeps posting photographs of himself at various landmarks on Facebook — and Arshavin seemed just the type to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the capital.

There was some early controversy with remarks his wife had made about British women and their kebab-eating habits, but the online diary in which she’d made those remarks — about an earlier trip to England, before Arshavin had joined Arsenal — also contained thoughtful observations on trips to Hampton Court and the Tower of London, suggesting a couple prepared to engage with a new country.

His ability wasn’t in doubt either. His return from suspension had been the spark that had ignited Russia at the European Championship and he’d been the hub of the Zenit side that had won the UEFA Cup at the City of Manchester Stadium in 2008.

He even had a trademark goal, showcased for Zenit against Bayer Leverkusen and for Russia against Macedonia, and repeated for Arsenal against Blackburn, bursting into the box from wide, waiting until the keeper shifted his weight in anticipation of a shot and then lashing it in high at his near post.

That night at Anfield seemed like a glimpse of a glorious future, but it turned out to be the high point. There were flickers, hints of what might have been, but Arshavin slowly sunk into poor form. His confidence looked shot, he seemed sluggish and he lacked the zip and raw energy that had made him so important to Russia’s hard pressing game under Guus Hiddink.

Last season, he was Arsenal’s highest provider of assists, but that only added to the frustration, demonstrating the ability that underlay the indifference. His departure was probably for the best for both parties, giving him three months back on home ground to try to rediscover his form before the Euros.

Things, it must be said, did not start auspiciously. Zenit look like using him — in the short term at least — as a replacement for the injured Danny, drifting in from the left flank as he used to in his pomp for the club, looking to rekindle his once productive partnership with the deep-lying centre-forward Alexander Kerzhakov.

In Saturday’s 2-2 draw with second-placed CSKA — a result that keeps Zenit six points clear at the top of the table — Arshavin was involved only fitfully and was substituted 10 minutes into the second half. The Russia news agency RIA Novosti described his performance as “anonymous”. In Sport-Express, the columnist Sergei Zimmermann was rather more positive. “He showed that it will not take a long time to find a common language with his old-new team-mates,” he wrote.

Arshavin himself was non-committal about his performance, speaking only of the “experience” of his team-mates, how it was “a good game between two strong teams ” with a “natural” result, and dismissing the low attendance as an irrelevance: “Perhaps in this weather it’s more comfortable to stay at home watching television or go to cheer with friends in the pub.”

It’s the kind of irreverent answer that once delighted fans; these days, Arshavin needs to start charming them on the pitch.


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