Even the wordiest of Russia’s great novelists would have struggled to match the epic length of Arsenal’s pursuit of Andrey Arshavin. But now the chase has been brought to a successful conclusion, English soccer will discover whether the wait has been worthwhile.
Arshavin, having finally completed his protracted move from Zenit St Petersburg on Tuesday, is being considered for a potentially explosive debut in today’s north London derby with Tottenham Hotspur.
Arsene Wenger would doubtless have preferred to ease in his new playmaker via a less volatile fixture, given both his lack of recent match practice — the Russian season ended in November — and the unique physical challenge posed by the harum-scarum Premier League. But Arsenal’s situation is so precarious, he simply has no room for niceties.
Having fallen five points behind the top four, courtesy of some wildly inconsistent form this season, Arshavin will be expected to make an immediate impact, especially as a smattering of the club’s more creative forces — Cesc Fabregas, Tomas Rosicky and Theo Walcott — remain out with long-term injuries.
“I believe he is talented, intelligent and motivated,” Wenger said. “When you have these things together, you always have a chance to make an impact, but you have to give him time as well. I will have reservations [about playing him], because the worst thing for a player is not being ready to play in a game of that intensity, or getting injured before having kicked a ball for the team. But we will see what shape he is in.”
Wenger sought to ease some of the pressure on his new arrival by stressing the strengths of the players around him and the fact that Arsenal are currently in the midst of their longest unbeaten run of the season.
“We have what it takes, without Arshavin,” he said. “The team is maturing — we have shown that against Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea. This team can compete with anybody.”
But the fact remains that Arshavin has come to be seen as the savior of Arsenal’s season — the conjurer capable of transforming frustrating draws into precious victories with a canny pass, quicksilver run or clinical finish. In short, delivering the same kind of alchemy he regularly produces for his national side.
Arshavin is not the only player who will be saddled with great expectations at White Hart Lane. Robbie Keane has also been charged with revitalizing his side, having moved back to the English capital after a deeply unhappy six-month spell at Liverpool.
The Ireland striker remains bitterly disappointed at his treatment by Rafael Benitez, the Liverpool manager, but he is anxious to draw a line under the past and there would be no more effective way to do that than by shooting down Spurs’ much-loathed near neighbors.
There is, however, far more than local bragging rights at stake. Tottenham also need points quickly — Harry Redknapp’s side could be in the bottom two by the time they run out at White Hart Lane — and Keane was anxious to provide a reality check in the build-up.
“I’m concerned — everyone should be, because we’re in a relegation battle,” Keane said. “Looking at the players we have, it’s a surprise, but that’s a reality now. It’s going to be difficult and the lads are low on confidence. But it’s up to me and the other senior boys to get everyone going again. There’s enough quality here in the squad, but we have to deliver now. There’s no point in having great individuals if you don’t get the results.”