Tito Vilanova will have a big void to fill when the Spaniard departs Camp Nou, but a Russian candidate could guarantee a smooth changing of the gloves
COMMENTWhile Barcelona’s drawn out €57 million capture of Neymar at last reached its conclusion with the Brazilian’s unveiling on Monday, behind the scenes at Camp Nou the club have already embarked on another complex pursuit.
The decision of Victor Valdes to walk away from Catalunya at the end of his contract in 2014 will bring to an end a 13-year association with the Blaugrana and leave coach Tito Vilanova with a sizeable void to fill.
The world’s media have been quick to link the Liga champions with anyone who has ever pulled on a pair of goalkeeping gloves. Goal understands that Liverpool’s Pepe Reina and Borussia Monchengladbach No.1 Marc-Andre ter Stegen are the early frontrunners for the impending vacancy, but Galatasaray's Nestor Mulsera is also an option.
Though the trio are on Barca’s radar, the erratic form of all three in recent times will not put supporters at ease or inspire confidence in a defensive unit that was found wanting for much of last season.
One man whose name is yet to be churned out by the transfer rumour mill is a Russian whose CV ticks all the relevant boxes, whose contract expires next summer and who should be given serious consideration as Barca president Sandro Rosell prepares to write another substantial cheque.
It is difficult to believe that it is 10 years since Igor Akinfeev broke into CSKA Moscow’s starting XI and a decade on there are few better goalkeepers in world football.
Now 27, the six-foot-one-inch glovesman can already boast a glittering resume at club level, with four league titles, six Russian Cups, four Super Cups and a single Uefa Cup success to his name. And, best of all, his peak years are still in front of him.
|IGOR AKINFEEV | CSKA Moscow, Goalkeeper, 27
|He's a bit like||Iker Casillas
Last season was arguably the finest of his career to date. CSKA lifted their first championship since 2006, with Akinfeev racking up a commendable 16 clean sheets as the club conceded just 25 goals in their 30 league games.
A week ago Koni faced Anzhi Makhachkala in the final of the Russian Cup and their No. 35 showed his thirst for the big occasion with a performance that drew superlatives from his peers.
CSKA supporters boycotted the game in protest at the decision to stage the showpiece in the troubled Chechen capital of Grozny, meaning the match was effectively an away fixture for the club as they did battle without the support of their fans.
In the end it didn’t matter. Anzhi dominated proceedings as they went in search of their first-ever trophy but, though wave after wave of attacks rained down on Akinfeev’s goal, he produced three phenomenal saves to thwart former Barcelona star Samuel Eto’o and single-handedly kept his side’s dreams of cup success alive.
With the game tied at 1-1 and neither side able to find a winner in extra time, penalties ensued and again CSKA’s man between the posts was key, as he saved Yuri Zhirkov’s effort from 12 yards on the way to a 4-3 shootout success.
Akinfeev was labelled a “genius” by the man whose cup dreams he shattered from the penalty spot, Zhirkov, while coach Leonid Slutsky was quick to hail his player a “hero” after his latest episode of expert glove work.
While critics may harbour doubts over the credibility of his efforts at club level outside of one of Europe’s major leagues, the Vidnov-born star continues to shine brightly on the international stage.
Under the guidance of Fabio Capello, Russia have won all four of their World Cup 2014 qualifying fixtures so far and sit top of Group F despite having played two games less than second-placed Israel.
Even more impressive, however, is the ‘0’ in the goals conceded column. In each of their four contests Akinfeev has held firm, leaving the eastern European nation the only side in qualification yet to be breached.
That feat is all the more impressive given the fact he has bounced back from a serious knee injury to reclaim his place in the national side.
With pressure of life at Barcelona one of the primary reasons behind Valdes’ decision to quit the club at the end of next season, strength of character is a must and it is clear the Russian has that attribute in abundance.
In August 2011 – and with the prospect of Euro 2012 looming large on the horizon - Akinfeev suffered ruptured knee ligaments in the Moscow derby with Spartak, following a horror tackle from Brazilian striker Wellington.
The injury left him sidelined for seven months and though he returned to first team football in April – two months ahead of the tournament - former Russia boss Dick Advocaat opted to start Zenit St Petersburg keeper Vyacheslav Malafeev and left the CSKA man on the bench.
It was a cruel blow and the second time in the space of four years that a serious injury had left him sidelined. He tore knee ligaments for the first time back in 2007, but on both occasions he has come back a better goalkeeper than before his physical struggles and proven he has the resilience to succeed at a bigger club.
Manchester United have long been credited with an interest in Akinfeev, while big-spending Ligue 1 new-boys Monaco are another club believed to be keen on his services.
But, with the clock ticking down on Valdes’ departure and the Russian at the peak of his powers, it is Barcelona who should look to ensure he doesn’t slip the net and do all they can to thrash out a deal for a man who will guarantee a smooth changing of the gloves at Camp Nou.
Barca's management will do well to tune into Russia's big World Cup qualifier against Portugal on Friday, as Akinfeev goes head to head against Real Madrid superstar Cristiano Ronaldo. Yet another cleansheet, and it will surely be impossible to ignore the CSKA Moscow "genius" any longer.