Rangers may have turned Manchester blue on Wednesday, but it was
Zenit St. Petersburg's Andrei Arshavin who illuminated the UEFA
Cup final. The 26-year-old forward had a hand in both of his
side's goals as the Russian side claimed their first-ever
Despite not being on the scoresheet himself, his pace, vision and movement caused Rangers problems throughout the match. As early as the fourth minute, he picked up the ball on the left side of the area and rattled the side netting with a fearsome shot. It was an early warning sign and the sign of things to come for the Scottish side.
Even Rangers manager Walter Smith was quick to highlight Arshavin as the difference between the two sides. Speaking in his post-match press conference he said: "This season we've missed the kind of play that the man of the match (Arshavin) can offer. We have a team that works extremely hard and one that has a good work ethic and a lot of determination, but we have just lacked someone like with a bit more creativity."
Prior to the goals, the Zenit No10 had decent claims for a penalty turned away by referee Peter Frojdfeldt when his cross struck the arm of Kirk Broadfoot. In the 65th minute, he chased a long ball, which Rangers' keeper Neil Alexander came out of his area to claim. Arshavin got there first, however, and was only denied by Sasa Papac, who had got back to the unguarded goal and headed clear.
Arshavin and Zenit's dominance paid off in the 72nd minute when his clever through-ball found Igor Denisov, who slotted home. With the Glaswegians pouring forward in search of an equaliser, he played in Fatih Tekke who sent in the cross which Konstantin Zyrianov turned in from close range.
"We scored at the right time," he said. "After that, Rangers threw everything at us and it became quite difficult for us as they are physically stronger. Thank God we scored a second to win it. We had the advantage overall as Rangers focused on defence. But in the second half we grew a little tired and for a time Rangers seized the initiative and found their stride."
Arshavin has spent his entire career at Zenit, but has already amassed an impressive haul of medals and personal awards in his eight seasons there. The former Russian Player of the Year has won 33 caps for his country and even captained the team during a UEFA EURO 2008 qualifier with Estonia in March 2007. On the night of his heroics in Manchester, he was named in his country's provisional 25-man squad for this summer's European finals in Austria and Switzerland.
With a number of European clubs coveting his services, Zenit coach Dick Advocaat knows that he faces a tough task keeping hold of his star man, but for the time being the Dutchman is only thinking about the victory. "I have won championships but now winning the UEFA Cup I have almost everything," he said. " ."
Everybody expected it to be an easy game for us but it was harder
than Bayern Munich because the expectation was on our side. But the
players handled it well. We scored two brilliant goals and deserved
It was estimated that over 100,000 Rangers supporters arrived in Manchester for the UEFA Cup final, with a sea of royal blue apparent at every turn on the city's streets. The city's newspaper, the Manchester Evening News, even christened the place 'Mac-chester' for the day, but despite the backing and banners which proudly read: 'This is your chance. This is your time. Make it yours. Become legends,' Rangers ultimately fell short against a side which had more class.
Veteran defender David Weir admitted as much to
FIFA.com after the match: "We are very
disappointed," he said. "We came here to win the trophy
and we didn't do it. I thought the game was very tight, very
close, but we've got to give them credit for winning it. They
took their chances when they came along.
All European games are great, and we have had 18 or 19 of them. Tonight has obviously been the highlight but we really wanted to win the thing. It would have been better if we had done it, but we have come a long way and we'll hope to do well again next year."
Whether Rangers can repeat their run to a continental final in 2009 remains to be seen, but they still have the league title and the Scottish Cup to contest over the next few weeks. "Obviously it'll be difficult to judge how much the disappointment takes out of them, but we have an opportunity with four games to go to win two [more] trophies," concluded Smith. "We hope they can overcome the disappointment of tonight's game and not let it affect them too badly."
How Rangers would love to have an Arshavin in their ranks in order to help them achieve their aims of a domestic treble.