Arshavin lights up Euro with sublime performance

BASEL: Pele, Maradona, Zico, Platini, Baggio, Zidane. Could Andrei Arshavin be next in line as one of football’s great No. 10s?

The number on the shirt that has traditionally stood for a sublime mix of balance and power, vision and goals had been strangely absent from the key moments at Euro 2008.

Important matches at the biggest tournaments demand a defining performance, and historically it is the man wearing No. 10 that delivers.

We might just have seen one Saturday night.

Arshavin was excellent in the regulation 90 minutes at St. Jakob Park, giving everything to inspire Russia to an upset win 3-1 over the Netherlands in extra-time that was only required because Dutch striker Ruud van Nistelrooy equalised in the 86th minute.

Virtuoso show

Yet the little man whose cheeks were flushed bright red from his exertions almost from the start was even better in the 30 added minutes. His virtuoso performance lifted his side to victory, scoring in the 116th minute to ensure the cameras — and eyes of the football world — were on him.

Russia coach Guus Hiddink called Arshavin a “natural winner.”

“He has tremendous skills. He knows how to dribble in defence,” Hiddink said. “(Defenders) can run with him but they cannot really attack him. It is what nature gave him.”

The potential for a historic night was there from the beginning on a steamy hot night in Basel.

Arshavin and Wesley Sneijder of the Netherlands both fit the bill of a classic No. 10. Poised and irrepressible, deadly with both feet, they are the smallest men in their starting line-ups.

Mould of Maradona

That puts them in the mould of Diego Maradona, possessing a low centre of gravity to bedevil any brutish defenders towering over them.

And like the great Argentine, Arshavin — standing at 1.73 metres (5-foot-8) — is a general on the pitch.

Despite not wearing the captain’s armband, the 27-year-old playmaker dictates the tempo of the Russian game and prompts and urges those around him. They seem happy to listen.

Against the Netherlands, Russia striker Roman Pavlyuchenko was always looking for Arshavin’s gestures to fine-tune their understanding.

Arshavin does an excellent job drawing the attention of defenders away from his colleagues. He punches above his weight and is a pugnacious tackler. Unlike Maradona, he also does it in his own half.

His sliding challenge to dispossess Orlando Engelaar on the half-hour set up a thrilling counterattack of a kind that has defined the tournament. There was Arshavin on the end of it, drawing a save from goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar at full stretch.

The No. 10 also usually excels at free-kicks and Arshavin sent a fizzing, curling shot past the post one minute before the goal finally came for Russia early in the second half. Naturally, it was Arshavin’s pass that changed the angle of attack and gifted Sergei Semak all the time and space he needed to cross into Pavlyuchenko’s path.

Greater players than Arshavin have been prone to diva-like bouts of self-pity when their teams have needed them. Maradona at the 1982 World Cup for one.

But once extra-time started, and all the momentum seemed with the Dutch, the little man from Zenit St. Petersburg wrested it back.

Tricky shot

A tricky shot with no backlift that tested Van Der Sar. A wriggling run and scooped shot that just cleared the crossbar. Hiddink really wanted that one in, judging by his reaction near the dugout bench.

Then in the 112th, Arshavin collected the ball out on the left with no support and no obvious prospects. He darted, he waited, he went to the byline and a lazy cross stayed in the air long enough for Dmitri Torbinski to arrive and tuck it away.

Four minutes later, Arshavin found more energy to go beyond the defence and finish off the Oranje challenge at Euro 2008 with his 13th goal in 36 international matches. — AP

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