By Ger Clancy , the Irishman
On the road from Sheremetyevo-2 to Moscow, a strange-looking monument sits awkwardly among the advertising hoardings and petrol stations. A huge lump of concrete with enormous spikes protruding, the anti-tank ‘Yozh’ (hedgehog) marks the closest the Germans got to Moscow in December 1941. It’s a symbol of not only how near the Wehrmacht got to the capital, it’s also a reminder that plenty of foreigners have come here with lofty plans of domination and got brutally sent back to where they came from, tail between legs.
Last night the England football team became the latest member of that grouping. And for one of the few times since its birth, the Russian Sbornaya was dishing out the punishment to a major football power.
The omens were bad for England right from the outset. Before kick off at least five of their supporters had been injured in scuffles. Around 4,000 England fans had traveled to Moscow for the match, amid warnings by their embassy not to wear face-paint and avoid displays of their allegiance on the streets prior to the game.
Throughout the week the English press talked endlessly about the synthetic surface being used at Luzhniki but to his credit, the England coach Steve McClaren wrote it off as an excuse. He may have wished he’d said nothing. For the first time in years an international match at Luzhniki had a sell-out crowd, guaranteeing a hostile reception for the English. Russian coach Hiddink made a number of changes from the team that was thumped at Wembley a month ago, most notably dropping goalkeeper Malafeev for Gabulov. Malafeev had a nightmare against England and Hiddink is not a man renowned for hesitation in difficult team selections.
However, on the field, England couldn’t have started better. They controlled the play in midfield and took the lead deservedly after 29 minutes. A high ball was allowed to bounce in the Russian box by Vasilii Berezutski and Rooney latched on to the dropping ball to lash a rasping shot high into the top corner beyond a helpless Gabulov. It was no more than England deserved and the Russians were now looking in deep trouble.
The game turned on a number of incidents in the first 25 minutes of the second half. Not long after the restart Steven Gerrard missed a gilt-edged chance, blasting wide with only Zurabov to beat. Then Micah Richards forced a good save from Gabulov when he really should have scored, shooting tamely from only 8 yards out. The moment of the game came on the 69th minute. Rooney rashly pulled down Zyrianov just outside the England box, but the forward fell down into the box. The referee incorrectly gave a penalty and Russia a lifeline, which substitute Pavluchenko gratefully accepted, blasting into Robinson’s right-hand corner. Now level, Russia pressed forward and when four minutes later Robinson could only parry Arshavin’s shot, Pavluchenko pushed home the rebound past a despairing Richards on the goal-line. Russia held on to the lead in modest comfort and greeted the final whistle with jubilation and smiles, something not previously associated with the Sbornaya, and rapturous celebrations in the stands.
The postmortem is already underway in England, focusing mainly on McClaren’s persistence with blundering goalkeeper Robinson, as well as throwing away a relatively comfortable lead. For Russia, however, all is bright. If Russia wins their next two games, against Israel and Andorra, they will qualify for Euro 2008, sensationally dumping England out in the process. Although the trip to Tel-Aviv will not be easy, the Russians are in control of their own destiny and will wallop Andorra. Hiddink’s magic appears to be rubbing off at last, and although the Sbornaya are by no means cured of all their ills, they are finally off the life-support. For England a miserable trip home beckons, and like the Werhmacht and Le Grande Armee before them, they leave Moscow defeated and mortally wounded.