With the start of Euro 2012 just over a week away, Goal.com International's Russia expert Max de Haldevang profiles Zenit St Petersburg striker Alexander Kerzhakov.
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Alexander Kerzhakov's talent has been clear since he joined Zenit St Petersburg as a fresh-faced 18-year-old, but it is only 11 years on that he is truly beginning to realize it. The diminutive striker has proved unstoppable for the Russian champion in 2011-12, scoring 16 goals in 22 games in the Russian Premier League in a revelatory season - the latest in a career filled with peaks, troughs and inconsistency.
He was more of a squad player for much of his first two years at Zenit and was equally peripheral for Russia. Picked for the 2002 World Cup, he played only seven minutes as a substitute in an unhappy tournament for the Eastern Europeans. Things began to change in 2002-03, though, when he and Andrei Arshavin developed into a formidable partnership that many hoped would serve Russia for a number of years. The next season, a 21 year-old Kerzhakov finished top scorer in the Russian league with 18 goals.
In contrast to his more esteemed striking partner, however, Kerzhakov initially struggled to live up to such expectations on the international stage, scoring only four goals in as many years between 2003 and 2006 and those coming against the lesser lights of Liechtenstein and Luxembourg. The end of this lean period matched poor form at club level, where he was dropped by new Zenit coach Dick Advocaat but still secured a transfer to Sevilla.
Despite further troubles in Spain - where he only managed eight league goals in two years - Kerzhakov gained enough confidence from his experience in Europe to propel himself to the top of Russia's scoring charts for the Euro 2008 qualifiers with six goals.
Another low was soon to follow, as his failure to acclimatise to Mediterranean football saw him transferred to Dinamo Moscow. In Moscow, he found himself so out of touch that Guus Hiddink dropped him for Euro 2008 and he missed the footballing highlight of his country's last 20 years, as Russia reached the semifinals.
He then moved back to Zenit in 2010 as a player reformed, with a new-found consistency created by a more diligent attitude on the pitch and training ground, which helped his side to the Russian title that year.
"I didn't let up even for a minute all season," he said after winning the championship for the first time. "I don`t know why, but if I did something, if I played or practiced, then I always gave maximum effort this year."
|"Kerzhakov is one of the leading footballers in the team. I see him as similar to Pavlyuchenko. They are two important forwards who will decide the course of any match"
- Lokomotiv captain Denis Glushakov
This prolific form and dependability forced him into the favor of now-national team coach Advocaat, whom he failed to impress in his first spell at Zenit. He was ever present in the Euro 2012 qualifiers and is favored to start as Russia's spearhead ahead of Roman Pavlyuchenko, who has been struggling with form and injury since his return to Russia. If the St Petersburg man can replicate his club exploits, he will be essential for his country in the tournament as he aims to prove a point to those who say that he is unable to perform at the highest level.
"Kerzhakov is one of the leading footballers in the team," says Lokomotiv captain Denis Glushakov. "I see him as similar to Roman Pavlyuchenko. They are two important forwards who will decide the course of any match."