Akinfeev horror-show underlines same old story for Russia


Igor Akinfeev boasts one of the most unenviable Champions League records you can imagine for a goalkeeper.

The 31-year-old last kept a clean sheet in the competition on November 1 2006, when CSKA Moscow held Arsenal to a 0-0 draw. 

It's not been so much a stick with which to beat him but rather one used to pinion him to the ground while taunts are hurled like rotten tomatoes, but the man himself says he's grown used to it.

"It was painful at first, but now I don't care about the swipes I get from people," he said last October as he neared a 10-year wait for that Champions League shut-out. "People embarrass themselves by commenting on it, not me."

That wasn't the case on Saturday. The goalkeeper's display was borderline embarrassing as Russia's Confederations Cup challenge was ended by Mexico.

Head coach Stanislav Cherchesov spoke before the game about how progress to the semi-finals was not essential to sustain a renewed optimism around the national team. The party, he said, would not be over if they failed to get the win at Kazan Arena that would take them into the knockout stages of a major tournament for the first time since Euro 2008.

There is undeniably a stronger rapport between the fans and the team than in recent years. The noisy support in their three matches at this Confederations Cup has shown that the Russian faithful are starting to believe in the application and style of Cherchesov and his players. On Saturday, though, they were badly let down by a man with more than 100 international caps and nearly 15 years at the top level - just when they were looking for an experienced hand to guide them.

The early signs were encouraging. Yuri Zhirkov was a livewire and should have had a penalty after being tripped by Hector Moreno. A second shout for a spot-kick was waved away by referee Fahad Al Mirdasi, the decision correctly upheld by a VAR referral.

Russia's strong start was rewarded when Alexander Samedov broke the deadlock, the Spartak Moscow man keeping his cool to slot past Guillermo Ochoa after missed defensive headers and a total airshot from Aleksandr Erokhin.

Mexico - who made nine changes to the side that beat New Zealand to keep up Juan Carlos Osorio's remarkable rotation policy - promptly hit back, though. Hector Herrera's fine lofted pass was headed towards the far post by Nestor Araujo, and Akinfeev, who had had almost nothing to do, did nothing to stop the ball crossing the line.

It was to get much, much worse. Seven minutes after half-time and after a spell of Russian pressure, Herrera hoofed the ball from the Mexico 'D' and Hirving Lozano set off in pursuit. Akinfeev, on the edge of his area, watched the ball drop, bounce, and then fly past him and into the net, his incomprehensible karate-kick attempt to clear doing nothing but give Lozano a sore shoulder.

The old fallibilities of Russia teams in key tournament games were suddenly laid bare. Mexico only needed a draw to ensure passage to the semi-finals and they were going one better without actually playing that well. Any hope of Russia scoring the two goals they needed to win and join Portugal in the next phase were ended when Zhirkov earned a second yellow card for a mindless elbow on Miguel Layun, having earlier been booked for putting his studs into the torso of Carlos Vela.

One match will not erase a slight but steady show of progress from Russia in recent months, nor will it eradicate the growing support for the side. Cherchesov himself has acknowledged that.

But their hopes of making a real statement at their home World Cup next year, and any hopes of mustering a run to a final for the first time since Euro 88, will remain non-existent while errors like Akinfeev's continue to happen.