Sport Vincent Hogan

Wednesday 16 August 2017

Vincent Hogan: Arshavin highlights gulf in class

Russians' grace leaves Ireland looking leaden footed before fightback offers hope for Moscow

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

The night carried a great ocean of regrets, but just one simple truth.

For an age, Russia played with ease and grace that wouldn't have looked out of place in the Bolshoi Theatre. It wasn't that they were better than Ireland, but that they were distant, unreachable. Giovanni Trapattoni's men looked like they had come to work in miner's boots.

Russia played in silk pumps.

Then Ireland scored twice in seven minutes and the acoustic changed to a riotous bedlam. What did it actually signify? Little enough beyond the competitive integrity of this Irish team. They fought to the last. They always will.

Delude

Yet, when all the noise and fanfare was spent, we were left with a palpable sense of separation. Sometimes we delude ourselves, belly-aching about how Trapattoni's coveting of structure offends our creative side. He seems deaf to the rhyme in our speech, blind to the music in our eyes. You might think he was turning us into plain people.

We want our Paul Greens to play with strumming eloquence when all we get is high energy and will. Well, oh for a bit of Italian structure here.

Until those late flurries, a night calculated to lower the national spirit bore the air of a sad little tableau unfolding on the western edge of Europe. The news from Yerevan had incentivised business. Slovakia's hopes of distancing themselves from the rest of Group B was shown up as a hopeless conceit. So, suddenly, there was contagious energy about this fixture.

The night tingled with opportunity then. Reminiscence too.

"We're all part of Jackie's Army" blared the tannoy approaching kick-off, any English-speaking visitors no doubt a mite perplexed to hear that we were "off to Italy".

Hardly surprising then that the opening flurries were just about the expenditure of nervous energy.

Yet, not long after Robbie Keane's attempted cross flopped onto Akinfeev's crossbar and Aiden McGeady blazed across the face of the Russian goal, the stadium went cemetery quiet.

Ignashevich hooked a Shay Given parry back over his shoulder and Kerzhakov's shot flew to the roof of the net, deflecting off Sean St Ledger's knee.

The goal had come after a Richard Dunne foul on Shirokov down Ireland's right flank and it was here, where Andrey Arshavin would roam with independent licence, that worry congealed upon worry.

Arshavin can reduce opponents to training-ground bollards, but he plays with dangerous vanity too. His energy doesn't instinctively stretch to menial tasks like tracking back and squeezing space. He seems allergic to worry.

Strong

Actually, his floppy hair and ruby cheeks wouldn't look out of place in a schoolyard. He may be Russian captain, but he still looks like a kid who's just slipped the teacher's duster into a class-mate's bag. Chances are his diet has yet to extend much beyond Pop-Tarts and ice-cream.

Yet, the gusto with which he sang the Russian anthem spoke of a strong patriotic pulse and most of the good things his team did here carried the Arshavin copyright.

They were two in front on 28 minutes when Kershakov stepped over Anyukov's low cross and Dzagoev rolled home a nonchalant finish. Already, Ireland looked to have been pitched into an unfair contest.

Dunne was characteristically aggressive, throwing himself into tackles as if the co-ordinates of battle were marked with barbed-wire and sandbags.

And by now, in a sense, they were. But there was little control from the team in green. The ball seemed to mock their energy.

Approaching half-time, McGeady and Keane did mine an opportunity, but the latter's cross to Doyle was intercepted by a phalanx of burgundy soldiers. Russia looked to be playing within themselves.

In the press-box, these nights pass in a frantic blur of jabbing fingers and graveyard frowns and, truth to tell, most of us were already too immersed in the obituary to see Shirokov's shot deflect off Dunne for Russia's third goal.

This was the tenor of the gathering now. Swallowed hysteria on every face.

When Keane went down under invisible contact from Zhirkov on 71 minutes, the Irish captain sending Akinfeev the wrong way from the spot, it seemed to represent nothing more than the compassion of a Dutch referee.

Yet, the goal electrified Ireland. They may be a team with multiple imperfections, but they play with authentic spirit. Suddenly, the sound of hope sprang from every corner.

Six minutes after the penalty, Shane Long forced home Ireland's second and, for a few light-headed moments, it seemed that Trap's men might effect a grand escape.

Yet, before business concluded, Pogrebnyak would miss a tap-in at the old Havelock Square end and -- though Ireland were all purpose and lather now -- they couldn't quite pull lightning from the Dublin sky.

So Russia and Dick Advocaat, a tetchy union even in its infancy, stepped out of the crucible with three precious European Championship points.

Russian manager Advocaat is so well paid, he makes Trapattoni look a social worker. In fact, defeat last night would have been terminal to the relationship.

Yet, he got what he came for and -- truth to tell -- it was no larceny.

There is an old Russian proverb that declares "Eternal peace lasts only until the next war."

Trapattoni may heretofore use it as a wall-motto.

Irish Independent

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