PFC CSKA Moskva's teenage goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev could be the star of the UEFA Cup final.
By Pavle Gognidze in Lisbon
Much of the credit for PFC CSKA Moskva's success in reaching tonight's UEFA Cup final is down to a goalkeeper who is only 19. Despite his tender years, Igor Akinfeev is already being compared to Russia's greatest goalkeeper ever, Lev Yashin.
Goalkeepers tend to come of age in their late 20s with early bloomers, like Real Madrid CF's Iker Casillas, very much the exception. However, those who worked with Akinfeev during his days with Russia's Under-17, U19 and U21 teams always knew he was something special. When he made his U21 debut, he was just 15 - five years younger than any of his team-mates.
He went on to make his Russian Premier League debut at the age of 17, as CSKA's first-choice goalkeeper Venianmin Mandrykin pulled out of a game against FC Krylya Sovetov Samara with a fever. Valeriy Gazzaev decided to give the youngster a try ahead of the more experienced Dmitri Kramarenko.
It proved a good decision. Akinfeev produced an exceptional display which was crowned when he saved an Andrei Kariaka penalty to keep a clean sheet in his first full professional game. "That day I received a huge confidence boost," the cool-headed teenager told uefa.com.
On top of confidence, Akinfeev can also boast cat-like reflexes and excellent aerial ability while he is quick off his line to deal with crosses and through balls. Handy with his kicks, what makes him so remarkable for his age is his positional sense - so well developed that the ball seems drawn towards him.
A fan of FC Spartak Moskva as a youngster, Stanislav Cherchesov was Akinfeev's goalkeeping idol, but other great Russian shot-stoppers like Rinat Dasayev, Vladimir Astapovski, Yuri Pshenichnikov and Vyacheslav Chanov also gave him food for thought as his game developed.
Dasayev would go on to be his goalkeeping coach for Russia and was hugely impressed. "He got the best goalkeeper award in almost every tournament he played in," he said. "What is important is that aside from talent he has a great attitude towards work and a huge will to improve."
CSKA goalkeeping coach Chanov agrees. "Igor is a real goalkeeper, it's in his character and attitude," he said. "Since the age of four he only dreamed of becoming a goalkeeper. He's very confident. I think he also tops all Russian goalkeepers in the length and precision of his goal kicks. With his right, he kicks 90 metres, with his left 80 metres."
While such a meteoric rise could easily go to a player's head, Akinfeev has remained modest. Always available to speak to journalists and fans, he is not the type to believe his own hype. "I'm not afraid of getting too big for my boots," he said. "That will never happen - I am immune to such things."
Thus far, modesty has been his watchword. "To say that a goalkeeper is half of any team is to put it too strongly," he said. "Sometimes a goalkeeper makes a big contribution but he is never responsible for half a team's success. Results do not depend upon one man. That is impossible in modern football."
Inevitably, he is approaching tonight's final with his customary sang-froid. "I didn't care who we played, whether it was [AZ] Alkmaar or Sporting [Clube de Portugal]. We just need to come out and do our thing. As for motivation, we don't need any pep talk. We understand what kind of game it is."