Russia v Sweden: Arshavin ready to reward faith of Hiddink
It's a clear indication of the importance of Andrei Arshavin to Russia that he was even included in the squad for Euro 2008.
Banned from the first two matches because of a foolish red card collected for kicking out at an opponent just six minutes from the end of the final qualification match - away to Andorra, of all teams - meant that the involvement of the 27-year-old became a hot subject for debate.
Not for Guus Hiddink, however. The coach of Russia had no hesitation including Arshavin and, with his team struggling through injury and loss of confidence, he could well make the difference in tonight's must-win Group D decider against Sweden.
And yet. Hiddink indicated yesterday that Arshavin may be left out. "There is a lack of game fitness, game rhythm, because he has not played many games recently. I don't know if he will start," Hiddink said. "The last match he took part in was a friendly against Lithuania (on 4 June). Up until then he had not played much, therefore he may not be in good enough condition to play a whole 90 minutes. We will see."
Hiddink hinted that he may use Arshavin as an impact substitute - although a late decision will be taken today. "Arshavin is a footballer who can make something out of nothing," he said. "He can score from anywhere. It's very useful for our team." Maybe Hiddink's ploy was to dampen down the expectation and, also, keep the Swedes guessing. They certainly expect the Zenit St Petersburg play-maker, whose future will be decided after this tournament in the face of interest from a host of Premier League clubs, to be involved.
"He has been one of their dominant players, we are very familiar with him, what he's done for the Russian team previously and what he has done with his club," Sweden's coach Lars Lagerback said. "We know what role he would play in the team if he is picked and we are 100 percent prepared to face him." Lagerback has his own problems, of course, not least with the state of Zlatan Ibrahimovic's knee - he will start but is not expected to last 90 minutes - while playing two games in a week has taken its toll on 36-year-old Henrik Larsson.
In a contest between the oldest team in the tournament against the youngest, the Swedes also have to contend with fatigue. However they know that, having never lost a competitive game to Russia, a draw will be enough to take them forward to Saturday's quarter-final meeting in Basle with the Netherlands.
Hiddink, of course, would relish playing his homeland and was relieved that the victory over Greece, after a crushing defeat to Spain, has given Russia a chance. The Dutchman admitted that he laid into his players after the first match. "It won't work every day if you try to quarrel (with players) when there is no reason to but sometimes I will do it, maybe individually if necessary," he said.
If Hiddink has had to toughen up the Russians then Lagerback is confident that his team is battle-hardened already. "The fact many of our players have experienced these situations before, also has a certain importance," he said. "You have to be able to handle it mentally. Our players have proved they're very strong in that department. Not least the way we've come back in the late stages of matches."
Russia (probable 4-4-1-1): Akinfeyev (CSKA Moscow); Anyukov (Zenit St Petersburg), Kolodin (Dynamo Moscow), Ignashevich (CSKA ), Zhirkov (CSKA); Zyryanov (Zenit St Petersburg), Semak (Rubin Kazan), Semshov (Dynamo Moscow), Torbinski* (Lokomotiv Moscow); Arshavin (Zenit St Petersburg); Pavlyuchenko (Spartak Moscow).
Sweden (probable 4-4-2); Isaksson (Manchester City); Alexandersson (Gothenburg), Mellberg (Juventus), Hansson (Rennes), M Nilsson (Panathinaikos); Elmander (Toulouse), Svensson* (Elfsborg), Andersson (Malmo), Ljungberg (West Ham); Ibrahimovic (Internazionale), H Larsson (Helsingborgs).
*on a yellow card.
Referee: F De Bleeckere (Belgium).