When manager Guus Hiddink signed up to play Diego Maradona's Argentina side in a friendly, he expected Russia to receive a very strong match. The affair at Lokomotiv Stadium proved to be exactly that and exactly what both sides needed before vital qualifying matches.
Although the final score read Argentina 3, Russia 2, there were honestly no losers in Moscow after the match.
Argentina established a great deal of confidence not only in their substitutes, but in themselves as they came from behind to secure a victory in a hostile environment. Russia had the chance to let some less-experienced players get some match time and also work out a few kinks before making their final run at Germany.
Maradona's side, played without the services of Carlos Tevez or Lionel Messi, while Russia had to do without Yuri Zhirkov for the afternoon.
Following a familiar script, Argentina started the match in quicksand, nearly conceding a goal 30 seconds in, as captain Andrei Arshavin fed a beautiful ball past Otamendi to former teammate Aleksandr Kerzhakov, but the Dinamo Moscow striker couldn't find the touch to bury it.
Russia continued it's excellent play, eventually capitalizing on another Argentina miscue as Zenit St. Petersburg midfielder Igor Semshov blasted a shot past Andujar to give the home crowd something to cheer about.
Guus Hiddink's high point came around the 35th minute of action, as Russia completed 20 or more passes in a row in the offensive third, essentially toying with the visitors' defensive inabilities. The wonderful build-up however, lead to nothing more than another Kerzhakov misfire and Argentina survived.
Argentina began to gain some momentum towards the end of the half, and Sergio Aguero fired a missile past Igor Akinfeev a mere seconds before the teams trotted to the dressing room.
Maradona's men immediately capitalized again, coming out of halftime in sixth gear. Two substitutes, Lopez and Datolo, scored in the first 13 minutes of play, leaving the Russian faithful in a state of disbelief. The Sbornaja had not allowed a goal in over seven hours of play before Argentina's blitz.
Then came Roman Pavlyuchenko, who was unleashed once more as a second-half substitute.
The Spurs striker, playing like a man possessed by ancient demons, had a fire in his eyes that told everyone he was going to score today if his life depended on it. And score he did.
In the 78th minute, Russia earned a free-kick just outside the box and Pavlyuchenko motioned everyone else away so he could take it. Lucky or not, he got the golden ricochet and the ball ended up in the back of the net.
The storyline drew itself up perfectly for a very good ending to an already superb match, but in incredibly anti-climatic fashion, the contest ended with no fireworks or late flurry of activity.
Hugs all around, Argentina are ecstatic and Russia are vastly disappointed.
But at the end of the day, it was a friendly and counted for absolutely nothing in terms of World Cup qualifying. Russia is still in second place behind Germany and Argentina still need every point they can get.
From a Russian point of view, we were beat fair and square, no arguments whatsoever, and it was terrific to throw out an average defensive game by most standards while the match didn't matter.
I'd give a dozen things that we learned from the friendly, but Maradona ate one of the cookies, so 11 will have to suffice.
1. Arshavin isn't human. With the World Cup and Arsenal put together, Andrei Arshavin has played a total of one competitive match in the last two and a half months. But he was in midseason form, as usual.
2. Sergei Ignashevich had a bad day. Ignashevich, normally a brick wall in front of Akinfeev, couldn't have defended the box against a groundhog with down syndrome. Everyone has a bad game once in a while, might as well get it out of the way. Better have a poor game in a friendly than against Germany.
3. Roman Pavlyuchenko is still possessed. When he came on as a substitute against Finland, he was on the prowl immediately and nearly scored twice in the first ten minutes of play. He was on the hunt again and while he plays with a purpose, he needs to be in the starting lineup.
4. They age like fine wine. Well, they might not be Italian, but the three grumpy old men of the Russian midfield (Semak, Zyryanov, and Semshov) sure didn't look a day over 30. Semshov scored a slick goal, while Zyryanov and Semak were mostly superb with the ball.
5. The kids are alright. Converted right-back Renat Yanbayev and attacking phenom Alan Dzagoev are new to the national stage, relatively speaking. They have seven caps put together. But both played well enough to stay out of Hiddink's metaphorical doghouse and most likely stay on the final roster.
6. Kerzhakov needs to shake off the...rust? Aleksandr Kerzhakov bagged a double in Helsinki back in June, but couldn't have hit the far side of the Luzhniki Stadium from a few yards out. Definitely odd, as he is one man who should be in mid-season form, playing with Dinamo.
Either way, Pavlyuchenko not only bulldozed his front door, but the rest of his house too, en route to the starting striker gig.
7. Don't blame the Guus for this one. Guus Hiddink had a lion's share of detractors when he took the position at Chelsea, but earned some of them back after three consecutive victories. This one wasn't his fault at all. He made all the correct substitutions, but Argentina was just the better side on this occasion.
8. Get well soon, Yuri Zhirkov! Zhirkov missed the match due to fitness and knee concerns, and it was probably all the best that he didn't suit up for the match. But no question about it, Russia's back line lost a very important piece that Yanbayev couldn't have dreamed of filling.
9. Akinfeev is 23-years old. And he should already be considered one of the best goalkeepers in the world. However, he didn't have too much of an opportunity to showcase his abilities yesterday, as Argentina's shots either missed completely or weren't being stopped by any keeper on the planet.
His streak of over 420 minutes of shutout football in international competition is just astonishing for anyone, let alone a goalkeeper his age.
10. Pavel Pogrebnyak? Spare us please! After Pavlyuchenko scored in the 78th minute, the hulking Pogrebnyak was brought on to provide additional offensive spark in attempt to level the match. That couldn't have backfired much worse. Right idea by Hiddink to bring on an offensive player, Pascha just provided for lack of better words, absolutely nothing.
11. Pity Liechtenstein. Although it won't be another several weeks before Liechtenstein stumbles into St. Petersburg, Russia already has it's howitzer sights set on the tiny alpine nation.
Russia not only delivered an unconvincing performance in Vaduz, but will look for immediate vengeance for the loss. No better way to get back on track than facing minnows, right?
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