By Michael Yokhin
Rising Spartak Moscow star Dmitriy Kombarov and Barcelona defender Jordi Alba have at least two things in common. Firstly, both are naturally attack-minded midfielders turned defenders. More interestingly, though, they are both prodigal sons, costing their first clubs quite a fortune to re-sign.
The Catalan born Alba was sent packing from La Masia aged 16, only to be bought this summer from Valencia for €14 million. Kombarov left Spartak's academy with his twin brother Kirill when they were 14 in 2001, with both told they would never make it as professionals, only for the pair to return nine years later for a combined €10m from Dinamo Moscow.
The twins may seem to be a little slight in build, but nothing could be further from the truth. They competed in kickboxing with great success as children, beating every opponent apart from one another. Their father wanted them to abandon football and concentrate on fighting, but Dmitriy and Kirill begged him to change his mind.
|KOMBAROV'S CAREER STATS
And, even though they were not considered bright prospects at first, his decision eventually paid dividends. Sergei Silkin, their coach at Dinamo Moscow, who was later put in charge of the senior squad, recalls: "I couldn't say the Kombarovs were the most gifted players, but their work rate was phenomenal."
At Dinamo, the twins were more or less equal. Kirill mainly played on the right, and occasionally filled in as a defensive midfielder. Left-footed Dmitriy naturally flourished on the flank. After switching back to their former club, though, they endured contrasting fates. While Kirill remained a hard-working, but average player, Dmitriy suddenly began to make big progress. Two years after signing for Spartak, he is now considered their most valuable asset, thanks in part to his impressive versatility.
Kombarov still enjoys playing on the left of midfield, but injuries forced coach Valery Karpin to use him at the back many times last season, and he responded supremely well. Then, towards the end of 2011, he was surprisingly switched to central midfield, a move he made with equal efficiency. "He was even better there than in his regular position on the flank," said Karpin.
It was a very long season, lasting more than a year, and Kombarov was the most used Spartak player, almost irreplaceable as his side made a late run to snatch second place ahead of CSKA Moscow. He finally forced his way into Dick Advocaat’s Russia squad, making his debut in February, before going to Euro 2012 as Yuri Zhirkov’s understudy.
He did not get a single minute of playing time at the tournament, and Advocaat paid for it. An error from Zhirkov allowed Greece to score a sensational winner and sent Russia packing at the group stage.
Fabio Capello, who replaced the 65-year-old in the summer, discarded the former Chelsea utility man, and installed Kombarov as his first-choice left-back. "He is a very important player for us," said the veteran Italian coach. Ever-present in the World Cup 2014 qualifiers so far, he has been highly praised, especially after winning his duel with Nani in a 1-0 win over Portugal.
The future is certainly looking bright for Kombarov. Last season he turned out to be a star by Russian Premier League standards, but 'only' scored six goals in 40 games. This season his progress is even more significant and he looks destined for European stardom.
Spartak owe him their place in the Champions League group stage for his man-of-the-match performance versus Fenerbahce in the qualifying round. In the first-leg at the Luzhniki, Kombarov set up the opener for Emmanuel Emenike with an exquisite low cross and after Dirk Kuyt equalised, he produced the winner with a stunning volley.
He has produced that form in the league too, hitting six goals already. He has played 90 minutes in every game but one, the trip to Zenit St Petersburg in August, and it is no coincidence that his team were thrashed 5-0 by the Russian champions without him. In the last fixture at Volga on Saturday, Kombarov astonished even his biggest fans by scoring an unstoppable free kick.
Unai Emery has branded Kombarov his side's leader and the former Valencia coach will need his star to be on top of his game against Barcelona on Tuesday, in a bid to help him improve his dismal record against the Catalans from his time in La Liga. After impressing at Camp Nou in a 3-2 defeat in September, the 25-year-old must be even better on Tuesday night in order to keep his side’s slim hopes of advancing from Group G intact.
He will enjoy his time on the big stage. And while Barcelona appear to have found their solution to the left-back position for years to come in Alba, there could be other suitors waiting in the wings for Kombarov.
Who knows, if Ashley Cole does leave Chelsea this summer, a certain Roman Abramovich could be interested in a move for his countryman.
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