By Andrew Wychrij
Picking the ball out of the net has become something of a habit for Igor Akinfeev this season.
The CSKA Moscow goalkeeper is still regarded as one of the shining lights of Russian football but his aura has certainly dimmed in recent months as the Army Men endured a dismal run of one win in eight games across all competitions.
Though the blame cannot rest with the Koni captain alone, his performances have nonetheless come in for significant criticism. The statistics point to a keeper struggling to live up to his own high standards. Akinfeev was beaten only 22 times in the entirety of CSKA’s title-winning 2012-13 campaign, a remarkable run of form that saw him deservedly named Russian Premier League Player of the Season.
This campaign has been far less impressive. In the league alone, the Vidnoye-born keeper has conceded 15 times in 14 games and kept just four clean sheets.
Indeed, some have questioned if he is even the best in Russia, with Zenit St Petersburg’s Yuri Lodygin among those winning support as rivals for Akinfeev’s place in the Russia starting line-up.
“It’s clear that the Russia No. 1 shirt belongs to CSKA’s goalkeeper,” former Zenit striker Aleksandr Panov told Sovetskiy Sport.
“But Lodygin is now a candidate... Igor is beginning to decline, while Yuri is progressing. He’s only just come into the Premier League and is showing his quality while Akinfeev is no longer growing professionally.
“In the near future, Lodygin will replace Akinfeev in the Russian goal.”
The 23-year-old could well mount a successful career in St Petersburg, but it is too early to get carried away with his progress, while the likes of Spartak Moscow’s Sergei Pesyakov are simply not good enough to challenge the CSKA keeper’s dominance.
The Muscovite has an array of qualities, not least his agility, astute reading of the game and brilliant shot-stopping ability, but he is not beyond reproach. He has regularly been found wanting of late and the reasons behind that perhaps explain why he is yet to make the transition from prodigious talent to household name.
If there is any particular criticism of Akinfeev, it is his questionable temperament. While immensely talented, the Russian keeper is susceptible to the occasional glaring mistake, particularly on the European and international stage.
CSKA’s 3-2 Champions League win over Viktoria Plzen underlined the flaws that continue to taint his game with a goalkeeping display littered with uncharacteristic errors.
Akinfeev seemed flustered and hesitant whenever dealing with crosses - a part of his game that does not represent his greatest strength - and had attempted several ill-advised punches before another fluffed clearance allowed Marek Bakos to grab the Czech side’s second.
While these lapses may be relatively rare, they are not unheard of (a horrendous blunder against Slovakia in a Euro 2012 qualifier springs to mind) and beg the question whether his domestic form will ever make the transition to the biggest of stages.
Indeed, that may answer why he has yet to find the confidence to leave his native Russia for one of Europe’s top leagues, despite rumoured interest from elsewhere. It is somewhat uncanny that when the Koni take to the field against Manchester City on Tuesday, there may be two beleaguered goalkeepers on display.
|IGOR AKINFEEV | CSKA Moscow, Goalkeeper, 27
Joe Hart’s current plight certainly draws parallels with his Russian counterpart - another top international whose recent form has cast doubt over whether his potential will be realised. Should they play, both will be watched with a scrutiny not afforded to their team-mates.
“It's difficult to compare goalkeepers without looking at the team as a whole,” CSKA coach Leonid Slutskiy told Goal.
“The quality of a goalkeeper's work largely depends on how much his team-mates allow opponents to create scoring chances...They [Akinfeev and Hart] are both very strong.”
Despite reported interest from AC Milan, Akinfeev is believed to be close to agreeing a long-term deal at CSKA. This would be a fatal mistake and could prevent him from ever reaching the levels his talents deserve.
The Russian Premier League has not proven itself a successful incubator for talent. While substantial investment has certainly improved the quality of players on show, it has so far done little to further the careers of high-profile imports, with the likes of Milos Krasic and Hulk both seeing their stock fall since moving to Eastern Europe.
Only by testing himself outside of his comfort zone will Akinfeev have the chance to shed doubts over his character and further his career. If he doesn't, he may never be the player he was once tipped to become.