It isn't an exaggeration to say that Roman Shirokov is for Russia what Cristiano Ronaldo is for Portugal. As the captain was forced to withdraw from the World Cup squad on Friday, the blow to Fabio Capello and his team is immense.
The Italian himself openly claimed that no other player in his squad possesses Shirokov's unique qualities, and that point was proved beyond doubt during the three friendly matches against Slovakia, Norway and Morocco that have taken place during the last two weeks.
Franck Ribery sadly lost his fight with back problems, and his absence may have hogged the headlines on Friday night, but it must be said that France have two players in superb form ready to step up and replace the Bayern Munich superstar -- Mathieu Valbuena and Antoine Griezmann. Nobody in the Russia squad comes even close to providing a impact like Shirokov.
The captain is absolutely vital in build-up play, with his imaginative range of passing, vision and uncanny ability to find spaces in the penalty area when joining attacks from behind. His football intelligence is unparalleled in Russia, and the team have looked desperately short of creative ideas without him.
Capello's troops were poor once again against Morocco on Friday in Moscow, even though they recorded a 2-0 win because their opponents failed to clear two corners properly. One ball luckily fell to Vasily Berezutsky, the other was struck brilliantly by Yuri Zhirkov who quite remarkably scored his first career goal for Russia in his 61st international appearance. The former Chelsea winger had missed the previous two games through injury, and his form was promising throughout the evening, but even that will hardly make the fans smile.
The message at the press conference after the game was extremely difficult to swallow.
Originally, Shirokov was in doubt because of a niggling gastrocnemius muscle injury. During the last week, his fitness seemed to be improving, and the player himself made some optimistic statements, but on Wednesday evening reports claimed that the playmaker aggravated the Achilles tendon injury that bothered him during the latter stages of the season, and will be forced to go under the knife.
There is some irony in the fact that heel problems prevented the 32-year-old from participating in his first, and most likely only, World Cup. Back in January, Shirokov was sent home from Zenit's training camp in Israel, amid rumours regarding a bust-up with coach Luciano Spalletti. The club's official version was that the player needed to get medical help with his heel, but nobody really believed that, despite the fact that the player himself published a picture of his foot being treated.
A couple of weeks later, Shirokov was sent on loan to Krasnodar, because Spalletti was unable to work with him anymore -- before the Italian was promptly sacked himself. Shirokov's heel has made a lot of headlines this year, but what seemed a bit comical in the winter is desperately tragic for Russian fans now.
The only positive aspect of the drama is that Russia won't be under any illusions anymore. There will be no vain hopes this time. Everything is crystal clear, and the coach must solve problems in attack using the players that are at his disposal. That won't be easy, and Russia are likely to struggle, but at least they are aware of their situation and must act accordingly.