Russia kicks off their Euro 2012 campaign on Friday, and no one knows who is going to play in net. Igor Akinfeev, kept out of Russia's last four Euro 2012 qualifying matches and most recent friendly through injury, could replace Vyacheslav Malafeev and claim his place as Russia's starting goalkeeper once again.
Malafeev is a veteran goalkeeper and very reliable. He had a solid season and did nothing wrong during Russia's build-up to the tournament. But he's not going to put a team on his back and carry them past superior opposition; he's just not that kind of keeper. Akinfeev is, but it's questionable whether or not he'll be at his best. He's coming off a lengthy injury that kept him sidelined for seven months, and Dick Advocaat might opt to play it safe with Malafeev on Friday.
Akinfeev's 52 caps at the age of 26 are impressive enough for a goalkeeper without any kind of context applied, but they're more impressive when one considers the freak injuries that have kept him from racking up even more caps. He was limited to just 10 league games in goal for CSKA Moscow in 2007, and he only played 26 out of 44 games in Russia's most recent extended 2011-12 season.
When he's been healthy, Akinfeev has been one of the most reliable goalkeepers in the world. He started every league game for his club in both 2008 and 2009 on either side of Russia's brilliant run to the semifinals of Euro 2008, where he was one of the team's star contributors. Then just 22 years old, Akinfeev was labeled as one of the world's big up and coming stars at any position, and most expected that he would eventually make a move to one of the big teams in England, Spain or Italy.
That move hasn't come yet, mostly because CSKA Moscow pays very well and regularly makes appearances in the UEFA Champions League knockout stages. There isn't a whole lot of incentive for Akinfeev to leave the comforts of home unless he's going to get Champions League football, six figures per week and a guaranteed No. 1 shirt out of the deal. And at 26, he's still young for a goalkeeper. He could conceivably wait until after the next World Cup to make a move and still fetch a large transfer fee for CSKA.
Akinfeev will be, at the very least, Russia's first choice at goalkeeper when the Euros end. Even if Malafeev stays in goal because of fitness, he'll lose his place once Akinfeev is playing regular club football again. There's no goalkeeper controversy, no argument over the No. 1 shirt in Russia. Even if Advocaat opts to bench Akinfeev, he will be back shortly.
But really, why would Advocaat bench Akinfeev? Simply because Malafeev hasn't done anything wrong? What fitness concerns could Akinfeev possibly have that would keep him from playing in goal? If he's fit enough to make the team, he's presumably fit enough to actually play in the tournament. And if he's fit enough to play in the tournament, even if he's not at his physical peak, how can Adcovaat sit him? Isn't an 80 percent physically capable Igor Akinfeev just Vyacheslav Malafeev?
Even though Malafeev is 33 and Akinfeev is 26, there is no experience gap between the two. Akinfeev has over 200 league starts, numerous Champions League appearances and more than double the caps of Malafeev. Mental errors simply aren't a consideration. The younger goalkeeper of the two is also the one with the most big-time international experience.
Malafeev's presence in net won't cause anyone concern. He can make all of the right decisions and won't mess up the easy saves. But if Advocaat picks Akinfeev, he'll be picking a goalkeeper that should -- if his teammates don't have short memories -- seriously inspire confidence in the team in front of him. He has a history of turning bad performances from his team into draws and average performances from his team into wins with his shot-stopping ability.
Regardless of whether or not Akinfeev starts the tournament on the bench, Russia's goalkeeping situation will be one of the biggest stories to watch at Euro 2012. Whoever does start against the Czech Republic will be under a serious amount of pressure to perform. A bad performance by the starter could cause Advocaat to make a swap for Russia's second game, but a superb performance by whoever starts could see that player lock down the job for the remainder of the tournament.
National Team: Russia
Club Team: CSKA Moscow
Role in the Team: Potential first-choice goalkeeper, depending on Dick Advocaat's evaluation of his fitness.