Summer 2008, and Andrei Arshavin had already spearheaded Zenit St Petersburg’s recent UEFA Cup triumph, having famously achieved qualification for the European Championship at the expense of a perennially misfiring team managed by Steve McClaren. Suspension meant Arshavin would sit out Russia’s first two matches. A luxury selection then, perhaps; not one accorded many players deemed less than talismanic…
The gamble worked, with surely the most exciting Russian team since the break-up of the Soviet Union. The third game against Sweden was a must-win. The returning Arshavin, supposedly struggling for match-fitness, was instrumental, helping to create an excellent team goal and finishing off another sweeping move for the second.
Next up: the fearsome prospect of a Dutch team in the quarter-finals that seemed to have discovered the perfect counterattacking blueprint. Reality proved different, as the little Russian ran the show; a barely deserved equalizer gave Holland the chance of extra time, but Arshavin’s pinpoint cross supplied the crucial goal and by the time he danced through the Dutch defence to nutmeg van der Sar, the game was up.
I watched this in front of the Vienna Rathaus at a pulsating Fanfest, and at the time it was easy to think after this third thrilling quarter-final that this could be the greatest tournament ever. Our then-record signing would open his Arsenal account with a sumptuous shimmy and tight-angle finish on a sunny day at home to Blackburn the next March. The marriage would, of course, eventually turn sour; but for a while the cocky, impudent forward who introduced himself with the words ‘I am Gooner now’ would delight us too with the skills he had shown the world in Austria.
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