Zhirkov: Every game is a final
CSKA Moscow's title challenge had seemingly been suffocated by a blanket of inconsistency. A goalless draw at Spartak Nalchik on 24 August had left them 12 points behind leaders Rubin Kazan, who had regained their balance after an abrupt mid-season stagger.
Valery Gazzaev's needed a lifeline and they found one in the form of six straight victories. What was once a canyon between them and their south-easterly rivals narrowed into a seven-point creek.
Central to this sequence was the infallible goalkeeping of Igor Akinfeev, and the stream of goals provided by Alan Dzagoev, 18, and Vagner Love. But every stream has its source, and this case's was one of Europe's most captivating and unique wingers.
Yuri Zhirkov's charm is a consequence of the unpredictable dribbling for which he is known as ‘The Russian Ronaldinho'. His individuality stems from qualities rare in a player of his position: defensive aptitude, work-rate and selflessness. Collectively, they have helped the Tambov native enjoy a breakthrough year.
Zhirkov helped Russia reach the semi-finals of UEFA EURO 2008, earning inclusion in the competition's Team of the Tournament, despite playing at left-back, in the process, and he has also been linked with transfers to Chelsea and Juventus. His thoughts, however, are not on the national team; nor a transfer to the prestigious pastures of London or Turin. They are, by contrast, exclusively focused on a league trophy he always considered within CSKA's grasp.
"I've always believed we can win this title," Zhirkov told FIFA.com. "We had a poor first half of the campaign. We didn't have luck on our side and were guilty of missing a lot of chances. But even when we were 12 points off the pace, . We knew we had little margin for error, but also that we could get back into contention."
That is exactly what CSKA have done and, unsurprisingly, it was Zhirkov who put the wind in their sails at cross-city rivals Lokomotiv Moscow. After masterfully creating the opener for Dzagoev, he then left jaws agape; just as his wonder goal had done against Hamburg in last season's UEFA Champions League.
Collecting the ball on the left flank, ten days after turning 25, Zhirkov slalomed his way past three opponents before firing the ball past goalkeeper Ivan Pelizzoli to seal a 2-0 success. It proved the start of a charge in which they have seized 25 points from a possible 27; one that has burdened Rubin with asphyxiating pressure.
"There is a lot of pressure on Rubin," explained Zhirkov. "They have been in the driving seat all season, so they have a real fear of throwing it away. They have never been in this position before and the more we keep winning, the greater the psychological pressure on them becomes. It could cause them to become nervous, to crumble."
CSKA's revivified assault on the crown they won in 2003, 2005 and 2006 will resume at another local enemy on Monday: Dinamo Moscow, who are just one point behind them in third and will be optimistic following their 2-0 at the Luzhniki Stadium earlier this season. Zhirkov is, nevertheless, confident his side can reverse this result at the Dynamo Stadium.
"Everything went wrong for us in that game. We were the better side but we didn't take our chances and Dinamo took theirs. But I think Dinamo were stronger in the first half of the season than they are now. .
"Every game is like a final for us. We're highly motivated to win every game until the end of the season. Rubin still have some very difficult games to play. They have to come to us and play Lokomotiv on the last day. We don't have control of our own destiny. We have to rely on help from other teams. But if we can will all of our games, I believe we can win the title."