Roman Pavlyuchenko put a smile back on the face of Russian football with a hat-trick in Saturday’s 3-1 Euro 2012 qualifying win over Armenia.
The Spurs forward had complained before the game of the low morale in Dick Advocaat’s squad but went on to supply the perfect on-field tonic after Armenia grabbed a shock first-half lead.
However, his scoring exploits could not stem a fan exodus early in the second half as ‘ultra’ followers of Zenit filed out of St. Petersburg’s Petrovsky Stadium in protest over planned new laws controlling supporters’ behaviour.
No politics please
For Russia’s head coach Dick Advocaat, the fan protests were an unwelcome addition to an otherwise satisfactory day.
“I’m not here to make political statements, my job is to concentrate on the game,” he said abruptly in response to a question about the walk-out.
And as for the match he conceded that it was a result that would impress more than the performance.
“It was a very good result because we knew we had to win,” he said in the post-match press conference. “But it wasn’t our best performance and we were a bit nervous at times.”
Advocaat has made a reputation for being contrary with the media, and he wasted little time in taking a swipe at those who had criticised his team after the 0-0 draw in Yerevan in May but were satisfied with this victory.
“We played much better in the away game,” he said, adding, “there was a lot of hard work out there and not much good football.
After a bright start from Russia they quickly got bogged down in a congested midfield – and it was Armenia who stunned their more illustrious hosts by grabbing a 26th minute lead.
It was a move which started on the Armenian goalline, where Roman Berezovsky did well to palm away Yury Zhirkov’s shot, and swept to the other end in seconds where Marcos Pizzelli had the freedom of the Russian half.
He drew Igor Akinfeyev off his line and placed a low shot beyond the retreating Sergei Ignashevich to open the scoring.
But Russia hit back immediately – thanks in part to an eagle-eyed assistant referee.
The unmarked Pavlyuchenko thumped a low volley which bounced awkwardly in front of Berezovsky, and while the goalie scooped it to safety the official was quick to raise his flag to confirm an instant equaliser.
If his first goal drew a delayed reaction from fans unsure whether it had gone in, Pavlyuchenko’s second was even more surreal.
As he volleyed Igor Semshov’s cross into the roof of the net from eight yards, two sectors of the home support were already leaving the ground.
Some stopped to applaud, but none were persuaded to remain until the final whistle leaving an eerie gap in the previously packed stadium.
They missed Pavlyuchenko complete his hat-trick on 73 minutes, confidently slotting home from the penalty spot after Yury Zhirkov was crudely checked by Sarkis Hovsepyan.
That third goal ended any fears of an Armenian come-back – though there was one remaining anxious moment when Henrik Mkhitaryan found Akinfeyev’s net only to be denied for offside.
The win takes Russia to 13 points and ensures they will be at least level with Slovakia and Ireland at the top of Group B.
Their rivals face Andorra and Macedonia respectively later on Saturday evening.
ST. PETERSBURG, June 4 (RIA Novosti, The Moscow News correspondent Andy Potts)