Russian international Aleksandr Kerzhakov will be playing football again in the New Year— perhaps just in time to stake a place for Russia’s Euro 2016 squad. The Zenit Saint Petersburg forward has barely played in 2015, and a fall-out with manager Andre Villas-Boas saw him moved to the the club’s second string, Zenit-2, for the current season. When he refused to go, Kerzhakov was banned from Zenit’s ground and training facilities, and he resorted to keeping himself in shape by using Lokomotiv Moscow’s facilities.
Last week, Kerzhakov confirmed via his Instragram account that in early January he will be moving on loan to FC Zürich until the summer. The Swiss Super League side are currently in ninth place out of ten teams, and just two points off the relegation place.
Is it a good move? It would seem so. Had Kerzhakov stayed in Russia, it is unlikely he would have kicked a ball before the summer—not only making a place in Russia’s 2016 squad impossible, but also making a contract extension at Zenit unlikely (his current deal runs out at the end of the season). The Swiss Super League is exactly half way through a thirty-six game season, which should give the forward plenty of game time to regain his form and to get match sharpness.
Kerzhakov is a player up for a challenge—that he’s the last of Russia’s 2002 World Cup youngsters still in, with a shout of making the current national squad, bears this out. The danger of relegation that his new sides faces will be an extra stimulus and better for him than, say, playing out the season with a mid-table team.
Kerzhakov wants to return to the Premier League next season, ideally with Zenit. Will this happen? Had his deal not run out this summer it’s almost certain he would have been back for a swan song once Villas-Boas left (also this coming summer). However, the need for a new contract will be a sticking point. Zenit tend to support old boys as they move towards coaching or management: currently Sergey Semak, Konstantin Zyranov, and Vladislav Radimov are all benefitting from this. But, and it is a big but, Kerzhakov would be a bit-part player. Much will depend on Villas-Boas’ successor; a manager familiar with the Russian league may be willing to let Kerzhakov exit the stage gracefully, but an outsider would likely have no room for such sentiment.
What about the national side? There is perhaps a better chance of Kerzhakov appearing there again, even just for the short-term, than winning a new Zenit contract. Assuming Russia take four forwards to Euro 2016 next summer, there is currently one vacant place alongside Artem Dzyuba, Aleksandr Kokorin, and Fyodor Smolov. Manager Leonid Slutsky’s approach to team selection is usually conservative, meaning he may go with an in-form Kerzhakov rather than with a young prospect. In any case, at present, it’s hard to imagine which younger forward he might pick. Maxim Kannunikov was involved in the last World Cup but is currently flattering to deceive at Rubin Kazan. Of the stars of the future, Spartak Moscow’s Denis Davydov, impressed during Spartak’s 3-2 win over Dinamo Moscow in October, but has tended to feature only for a few minutes at a time. The 2018 World Cup is a more realistic target for him.
The realist in me accepts a likely scenario, come the summer, in which we find Kerzhakov has declined, he misses out on a Euro 2016 place, and in the summer he retires. But, there is a romantic dream too: Kerzhakov has a good half year in Switzerland, is an impact substitute for Russia at Euro 2016, then gets a one-year deal at Zenit before scoring the winner over Spartak in his first game back.