Yuri Zhirkov is hoping his PFC CSKA Moskva can find a way past Parma FC to the UEFA Cup final.
By Eduard Nisenboim
When PFC CSKA Moskva all but guaranteed their place in the UEFA Cup's last four with a 4-0 quarter-final first leg win against AJ Auxerre, left-sided midfielder Yuri Zhirkov confirmed his status as one of Russian football's rising stars by creating two of the goals in the Moscow rout.
The 21-year-old's stock has certainly risen since he joined CSKA at the start of the 2004 campaign. If two seasons ago Zhirkov was playing for his local club FC Spartak Tambov, he is now a Russian international following his debut in February, and only Parma FC stand between the wide boy and a UEFA Cup final appearance.
However, CSKA's success has not surprised Zhirkov. "We took confidence from our [UEFA] Champions League campaign, despite not qualifying from the group," he said. "Our matches against Chelsea [FC] and Paris Saint-Germain [FC] showed we can be a match for top European opposition."
With Parma struggling against relegation from Serie A, most have made CSKA favourites for this tie, especially given that the Italian side are likely to field several young reserves in both legs - as they have throughout the tournament.
"This is flattering but nothing more than that," said Zhirkov. "A lot of favourites are out, while we are still in contention. Of course, Parma have problems and are fighting for survival in Serie A. But Italians are Italians. They have good forwards. And it might seem odd but I would make Parma favourites."
Much has been made of Parma's talented tyros, but CSKA's squad is every bit as youthful. With an average age of 22, Valeriy Gazzaev's team have come of age in Europe this term. "It is great that we are so young," said Zhirkov. "We are very eager to play and we are hungry for victories. Our age also means we find it easier to recover from playing so many matches."
However, as brilliant as they have occasionally been, CSKA remain a temperamental side. Tellingly, they thrashed Auxerre and then domestic rivals FC Krylya Sovetov Samara, before losing in the second leg in France and being defeated by FC Zenit St. Petersburg.
"At the start of the [Russian] season we were exhausted, and the coaches had to make changes to give us a breather," said Zhirkov. "Then again, no team can play all their matches to the same standard. When everything is going well, you don't think about it much. You only feel the discomfort on the bad days."
Bad days have been few and far between for Zhirkov. Having scored 26 goals in three seasons with Spartak Tambov, he registered six in 25 outings for CSKA in 2004, and has continued to claim a regular place in 2005. "I hope I still haven't reached my full potential and my best games are ahead of me," he said.
'Not beyond us'
Meantime, the aim is to realise the dream of a major trophy with CSKA. Not that Zhirkov is getting the task out of proportion. "We have only one task and that is to win the UEFA Cup," he said. "There's no other way to think about it. And events have shown that winning it is not beyond us."