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Arshavin: Cherchesov is the ideal choice

When Andrei Arshavin signed a contract for Kazakhstan's FC Kairat in March this year, many thought he was going there to see out the end of his playing days, especially since he turned 35 in May. As it turned out, that couldn't be further from the truth; the former Zenit St. Petersburg, Arsenal and Russia star still has that magic touch.

Due to a variety of problems at his previous club, FC Kuban Krasnodar, Arshavin essentially spent six months away from the pitch. In switching to Kairat, he has got exactly what he needed - playing time. The Kazakhstan championship runs from spring to autumn, so in just shy of five months Arshavin has played 25 games, 21 in the league and four in the UEFA Europa League qualification rounds, scoring eight goals.

The Russian star succinctly summed up the reasoning behind his move to Kazakhstan in an interview with FIFA.com: "They made an offer and I accepted."

Geographically Kazakhstan is right on the edge of European football and does not garner much attention from an international fanbase, although recently both the Kazakhstan national team and local clubs are proving a tough task for opponents to deal with, especially on home soil. Just ask Poland's players, who dropped points in Astana in their opening game of the 2018 FIFA World Cup RussiaT qualification campaign. We asked Arshavin to compare the set-up in Kazakhstan with those he came across in Russia and England.

"Of course, it's hard to compare with England and that doesn't just apply to Kazakhstan but other countries as well,' he answered. "Only Germany can probably compete with them. In principle, you can draw similarities with Russia however. The infrastructure in Russia is a little better, plus they're building new stadiums ahead of the World Cup. In general, the stadiums here are pretty much the same, left over from the post-Soviet era. Sometimes the pitches are better, sometimes they're not. The set-up is decent at Kairat actually."

'Kazakhstan at the World Cup? Why not?'

"As for the national team," Andrei continued, "I've been telling the local players that Kazakhstan haven't got the hardest qualifying group for the 2018 World Cup (ed's note - Romania, Denmark, Poland, Montenegro and Armenia). There's no one who you'd pick out as clear favourites and Kazakhstan can compete with anyone at home. If things go their way on home soil, they can target a decent result. Who knows, maybe we'll see Kazakhstan at Russia 2018? At club-level, Astana and Kairat are roughly at the standard of the play-off round for the UEFA Champions League and Europa League."

Helped by Arshavin, Kairat made it as far as the second qualifying round for the Europa League this season. Easing past Albanian outfit KF Teuta Durres, the Almaty-based side then lost out in a close-run encounter to Maccabi Tel-Aviv, who have featured in the group stages of the Champions League before. It took Arshavin hardly any time at all to adapt to his new surroundings before he was orchestrating his team's play and contributing massively to the team's surge up the table after a shaky start, narrowing the gap to league leaders and main rivals FC Astana.

Arshavin's feats have been taking place on the fringes of European football, so only his most loyal fans, of which there are many, have taken note. That he was not in the Russia squad for UEFA EURO 2016 came as no surprise: the last time Andrei played for the national team was four years ago.

Nevertheless, one goal at the end of July changed everything. Once again Arshavin was the topic of conversation in Russia, England and everywhere they showed his phenomenal strike against FC Taraz in Matchday 22 of the Kazakhstan Premier League. Even taking into account the standard of the competition, this goal will easily go down as one of the best of the summer from anywhere in the world.ha

Arshavin, anticipating a crossfield pass in front of the penalty box from another former Zenit player, Anatoliy Tymoshchuk, used his back leg to deftly steer the ball beyond his marker in a single elegant motion. Leaving the defender for dead, he then cut back onto his right foot to eke out a yard of space. With more opposition players about to crowd him out, the little magician deftly chipped the ball over the defenders and goalkeeper into the net.

"It all happened naturally," he explained. "First I beat one defender and then another. Next I saw a big crowd of players in front of me and there was no other way I could hit the target easily."

The ideal choice

His employers will not mind keeping Arshavin in Almaty for another season after such a display (he agreed a deal on a rolling-contract basis). Back home, the voices calling for his return to the national team, which lacks creative players, are getting louder after Russia's poor showing at the EURO. Nevertheless, Andrei is careful when talking about the future.

"There aren't any plans just yet, time will tell. It's hard to say about the national team, I haven't played for my country for a long time after all. If the call-up comes, then we'll talk about it. If I'm being honest, at my age I need to think about every moment I spend on the football pitch, so it's hard to make any big plans for the future."

Recently the Russian national team, which Arshavin inspired to the EURO 2008 semi-finals, has changed head coach. Stanislav Cherchesov has been tasked with guiding the team at two hugely important tournaments on home soil, the FIFA Confederations Cup 2017 and the 2018 World Cup. Andrei, for one, welcomes the decision by the Russian Football Union: "I think he's the ideal choice given the current situation."

Indeed, in less than a year's time, Arshavin's native city of Saint Petersburg will become the main destination of the Confederations Cup, hosting the opening match, final and two other games.

"It will be a huge event for Saint Petersburg," he concluded with confidence.

Who knows, perhaps a swansong performance in front of his home fans could be yet to come from one of Russia's best-ever footballers.

FIFA.com, 07 Sep 2016

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