By Andrew Wychrij
Whichever way you look at it, 2012-13 was a remarkable season for Igor Akinfeev. An absolute colossus between the posts for both CSKA Moscow and Russia, it is only fitting that he has since added individual honours to the league and cup double he secured with his club.
Named as the Russian Premier League player of the season - as well as being voted the best shot-stopper in the world by Goal readers ahead of his inclusion in Goal 50 - the 27-year-old Muscovite has recovered admirably from a difficult couple of years. Since damaging cruciate ligaments in a clash with Spartak Moscow’s Welliton in August 2011, Akinfeev has regained the Russian No.1 jersey from Vyacheslav Malafeev, guided his team to domestic glory and finally underlined his reputation as one of Europe’s top keepers.
“He’s irreplaceable and he knows it,” the CSKA head coach Leonid Slutsky said of his star man in an interview with Sport Express in June.
“Speaking seriously, a star of this magnitude needs an individual approach from a coach. It requires some effort but, then again, that has paid off handsomely.”
Whatever Slustky and his predecessors have done to nurture the Koni captain’s ability, it certainly has paid off. Akinfeev made his Russian top-flight debut at just 16, saving a penalty as CSKA beat Krylya Sovetov 2-0, and has since made over 260 appearances for the club.
There is an objective brilliance played out in the Russian’s statistics from the previous campaign - 18 clean sheets for CSKA as well as surpassing the exploits of Soviet-era greats Rinat Dasayev and Lev Yashin in setting a national team record by going 708 minutes without conceding. This is all supporting evidence for a talent that has proved an inspiration for club and country alike.
|RUSSIAN GOALKEEPING LEGENDS|
|Rinat Dasaev||1979-90 (USSR)||91|
|Lev Yashin||1954-67 (USSR)||74|
With his outstanding reflexes, courage in one-on-one situations and impeccable reading of the game, Akinfeev has been a rock in CSKA’s recent ascent. It is no coincidence, after all, that the Army Men’s league-winning success came with the joint best defensive record in the division, shipping a miserly 25 goals.
Probably no performance better defined Akinfeev’s season than the Russian Cup final against Anzhi Makhachkala. Played in the unfamiliar setting of the Chechen capital Grozhny - and boycotted by CSKA fans as a result - the Koni were under constant pressure in what was essentially an away game. Akinfeev was imperious, making a string of magnificent stops, repeatedly denying Samuel Eto’o in particular, to keep the game at 1-1 before saving decisively from Yuri Zhirkov to seal a 4-3 penalty shoot-out win.
For CSKA to secure their first league title since 2006 individual heroics were always likely to be required. The Koni should, on paper, not even be able to compete with some of their major rivals. Their wealth pales into comparison with that of Anzhi Makhachkala (at least before their recently announced ‘re-formatting’), Zenit St Petersburg, Spartak Moscow and even Dynamo Moscow, backed as they are by VTB Bank. CSKA are not the wealthiest, not the most popular, and nor do they have the most star-studded squad - but they have been crafted into an extremely cohesive unit. Akinfeev has led a formidable defensive partnership alongside Alexey Berezutskiy and Sergey Ignashevich, providing a stable base for the attacking talents of Keisuke Honda among others. It is certainly hard to imagine CSKA repeating their success without the influence of their captain.
Equally, for critics who suggest that Akinfeev’s efforts in the Russian Premier League lack the credibility to propel him into the pantheon of the world’s great keepers, it is worth remembering that he has shone no less brightly at international level. Russia have conceded just twice in their six World Cup Qualifying games so far and still look likely to reach the tournament for the first time in 12 years.
Akinfeev, though, remains endearingly humble the face of the praise lavished upon him:
"The saves I made were mostly fortunate,” he said after lifting the Russian cup. “Today I got lucky and I'd like to thank my team-mates who helped me."
It is precisely that attitude that has made the inevitable Yashin comparisons slightly more palatable. In Russia, Yashin is like the Dalai Lama, there is an incarnation for every generation and too many Russian keepers have been burdened by association with the 1963 European Footballer of the Year - still the only goalkeeper to have won the award. It is the unfortunate curse of Russian football’s greatest icon.
Emulating Yashin, universally regarded as one of the greatest to play the game, is near impossible but Akinfeev has a chance to at least partially justify those comparisons. However, at 27 and approaching the peak of his career, the CSKA captain will soon face a crossroads: remain in Russia or prove his worth in one of Europe’s top leagues. His legacy will no doubt depend on that choice but, though there have been many pretenders to the throne of the Black Panther, in Akinfeev there may actually be a man worthy of being called his heir.