Reading came back from two goals down to beat West Bromwich Albion 3-2 this past weekend. It was a performance and result that has strengthened belief in the Royals’ ability to beat the odds and stay up this season.
The scorer of their unlikely winner was Pavel Pogrebnyak, a player in need of a confidence boost himself.
A Russia international, Pogrebnyak signed a four-year contract with the 2011-12 Championship winners last summer. Having made his bow in English football during a loan spell with Fulham a few months previously, he was swayed into joining Reading ahead of the Cottagers.
That Reading is owned by fellow countryman Anton Zingarevich undoubtedly contributed to Pogrebnyak’s decision to move there. After making an immediate impression at Fulham (scoring six times) he will have also been keen to prove he was not just a flash in the pan.
Doing so has not proven easy for the striker.
Life at a Premier League club scrapping for survival is not so conducive to seeing one’s name in the limelight, not when there are more immediately pressing priorities.
After a difficult beginning to the campaign, there are signs however that player and team are finding their feet.
Pogrebnyak has scored three times in their last three league fixtures, two of which were vital winners that have helped keep Reading in touch with the teams above them. With his overall tally standing at seven in all competitions, the 29-year-old could yet establish himself as a force to contend with in the division.
It is interesting to note that Pogrebnyak is the only Russian currently playing in the Premier League.
Well, kind of. There is Andrey Arshavin, but the maverick attacker has fallen out of favor to such an extent he has not started a league game for Arsenal this season.
After a generally productive first two-and-a-half seasons with the Gunners featuring the occasional brilliant displays (his four-goal haul at Anfield in April 2009 springs to mind), the unraveling of Arshavin’s career since then has been an underwhelming and dispiriting process.
The 31-year-old’s career in England might not yet be over. In December there were rumors in English newspapers such as the Daily Mail suggesting he would join up with his compatriots at Reading.
But for all intents and purposes, Arshavin’s decline has left Pogrebnyak as his country’s only significant representative in England—a state of affairs that would have seemed unlikely not that long ago following Russia’s impressive Euro 2008 campaign.
Europe’s biggest nation had left a minimal imprint on the English game prior to that point.
Dmitri Kharine was Chelsea’s No.1 for a time during the 1990s. More successful was Andrei Kanchelskis (Ukrainian born, but a representative of Russia following the breakup of the Soviet Union) who thrilled on the right wing for Manchester United in Sir Alex Ferguson’s first Premiership triumphs. Alexey Smertin, who played for three different clubs in a decent but mostly unremarkable stay over five years, was Russia’s only representative prior to the aforementioned tournament.
It all changed with a European Championships where Russia was one of the standout teams. Their fluid, thoroughly watchable football knocked out a previously dangerous Netherlands team and only came undone in the semifinals against eventual winners Spain (who had also beaten them in the group stage).
The stars of that team were amongst the transfer market’s most in-demand names later that summer. Tottenham Hotspur was especially keen, unsuccessfully chasing after Arshavin they did manage to sign Roman Pavlyuchenko.
Pavlyuchenko scored 35 goals in three-and-a-half seasons, a commendable tally given the circumstances of his time in North London. The striker never convinced manager Harry Redknapp (who was in charge during all but two months of the Russian’s spell) of his worth as a regular starter and eventually moved in search of first team football. In spite of this his stay was marked by some thrilling and timely contributions that made him a firm fan’s favorite at White Hart Lane.
Arshavin joined Arsenal five months after Pavlyuchenko’s arrival with the two of them playing their part in convincing others of the merits of buying Russian.
Yuri Zhirkov and Diniyar Bilyaletdinov were signed by Chelsea and Everton respectively in summer 2009. Rather than the beginning of a greater influx of Russian talent, they were the last of the crop of Euro 2008 to spring up in England and were gone by the end of 2012.
All four players performed well enough that it would be harsh to deem them failures. But similarly successes would be too strong a word.
Zhirkov and Pavlyuchenko had genuine competition to contend with at their clubs while Arshavin’s latter struggles are perhaps as much to do with him being the wrong side of 30 in a frenzied league that has become too fast for him. Bilyaletdinov underwhelmed but still enjoyed some fine moments for the Toffees.
What remains to be seen is if more of their countrymen will yet follow. With an increasingly returning relevance on the European stage and a World Cup to come in 2018, Russia will find itself as one of the places to be in football.
But so long as there is money in England there will be interest in signing the best talent, and that includes Russians.
For now though it is just Pogrebnyak waving the flag for his country’s game. Reading will be hopeful he goes onto represent more successfully than any who came before him.