Andrei Arshavin is back on song. The diminutive playmaker has been in impressive form for Arsenal of late, a fact that has not gone unnoticed by Russia coach Guus Hiddink, who has recalled him to the national side on the back his recent exploits in the English Premier League.
"He has completely adapted now," said Hiddink. "He's not just scoring, he's dictating the play too."
It is no coincidence that Arsenal's return to form has come just as their expensive mid-season recruit has established his place in the starting line-up. After breaking on to the scene with Zenit last term, and impressing at UEFA EURO 2008, the baby-faced attacking midfielder is well on the way to gaining universal admiration in the English top flight.
He's made all the difference since he came here. You can see right away that he's a special player. He always makes the right decision.
"He knows exactly what he wants," said Gunners team-mate Gael Clichy, a first-hand witness of Arshavin's magical tricks. His second goal in last week's league meeting with Blackburn Rovers provided an example of his silky skills, and had pundits and fans alike purring in admiration.
"Every time he goes out on the pitch he performs," said Arsenal defender Bacary Sagna, another member of the Russian's fast-growing fan club. "He's versatile with it, and he can play down the right, the left and in the centre.
Cesc Fabregas is also full of praise for the new arrival. "He's made all the difference since he came here. You can see right away that he's a special player. Whenever he gets on the ball or goes on a run he always gets it right, he always makes the right decision."
Although ineligible for the UEFA Champions League, Arshavin has been making his presence felt on the home front, playing a decisive part in Arsenal's FA Cup quarter-final win over Hull City and in their 3-1 defeat of Newcastle United in the league. Performances such as those have no doubt left Liverpool coach Rafael Benitez ruing his inability to secure the services of the pocket-sized genius, while Arsene Wenger has made little secret of his delight in bringing Arshavin to north London.
"I've always said that you should never expect anything of a January signing until the following season, but Andrei has shown me that I was wrong," admitted the Arsenal manager. "He's got personality, vision and intelligence. That explains why he's been able to settle in so quickly. He's a hard worker too. He knows he can't play in the European Cup so he's focusing solely on the domestic games."
I've always said that you should never expect anything of a January signing until the following season, but Andrei has shown me that I was wrong.
Those domestic engagements include an FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea, a match that will pit him against his national coach Hiddink. "The image of Russian football has improved a lot and that's down to him," said Hiddink in acknowledging the Arsenal man's impact in England. The Dutchman is one Arshavin's biggest admirers, recognising his devotion to the cause as well as his commitment, unselfishness and ability to stay calm.
A 2008 UEFA Cup winner with Zenit, Arshavin has already shown he can cope with the rough and tumble of Premier League football. On the receiving end of a heavy challenge in the first half against Blackburn, the Russian had to have eight stitches for a foot injury at the interval.
Shrugging off his discomfort, he then conjured up a superb solo goal, a strike he celebrated by leaping into the arms of the club doctor. It was only when Wenger explained the reason for the celebration afterwards, that the injury even became a talking point. "Andrei is a tough competitor and if you're going to win trophies you need people like that in your team."
More to come
With the 28-year-old having adapted to life in England so quickly, many have wondered how Zenit managed to hang on to him for so long. Short on match fitness after arriving during the Russian close season, Arshavin has complemented the weekly round of training sessions and matches with a special programme in a bid to reach peak condition. All of which begs the question: What kind of havoc will the Russian sorcerer wreak when he is fully fit?
For the time being at least, the man himself is content to find his feet. "I'm just getting to know my new team-mates and because of that there are times when I don't know where to go or how to use the space. I've been playing well at times but I want to play well all the time," he said.
New recruit or not, Arshavin has been already been making a contribution to team talks, as Clichy explained: "When he has something to say to the coach he says it."
By and large, however, Arshavin is happy to let Wenger make the decisions. "It's up to the coach to decide the best place for me," he said. "I do think, though, that if Arsenal play 4-4-2, it's better for me to play as a second striker. And if we play 4-3-3, I can play on the right or the left. It doesn't really matter."
Wherever Wenger chooses to deploy him, the Russian crowd-pleaser is sure to be entertaining the fans for some time to come.