Roman Abramovich's favorite player over the years has been Andriy Shevchenko, to the point that he shelled out 30 million pounds to bring him from Milan to Chelsea. Since then, "Sheva" has been on a slide. Related or not to his downfall, the oligarch has taken on a new project, Diniyar Bilyaletdinov. The 22-year-old rising star of Lokomotiv Russia is considered one of the best talents Russia has produced.
A writer for British daily The Independent with good connections at Chelsea revealed recently that Abramovich wants to bring Bilyaletdinov to his club in January along with another talented Lokomotiv player, 20-year-old Serbian Branislav Ivanovic. He has reportedly set aside 20 million pounds for the deal.
The reports gained currency a few weeks ago when Chelsea coach Avram Grant paid a surprise visit to Moscow. The player only learned of Grant's arrival after the Israeli watched him play a league game against FC Tom Tomsk. The Russian papers were divided over which player Grant came to scout, Bilyaletdinov or Ivanovic.
"He definitely got a negative impression of me," the midfielder told Haaretz in a childlike tone. "It was a poor game, very weak." But Bilyaletdinov would also admit that the dream of making it in the biggest league abroad is alive and well. The next step in making that dream come true takes place this Saturday with Russia's qualifier against Israel in Ramat Gan. The scouts will surely be there.
"For certain I'll have to prove myself all over again in clubs of this big a size, but I am prepared for any challenge," he says. "I want to be a part of a great team, and perhaps advancing to the European championship will be a professional springboard - both for me and others on the national team. I'm ready to go west - I just hope an offer will come my way."
It's doubtful whether Grant will need to follow him in Ramat Gan. A midfielder who can play both sides of the pitch, he has a range of remarkable talents. He stands out among Russian players. A local paper dubbed him the real Brazilian on a club that boasts three players from that country. Fans have nicknamed him Bilyaletdinho.
'We lost valuable points'
Another outstanding aspect of the young star is his maturity, which earned him the role of captain despite his age and the presence of veterans like Sergei Gurenko. His maturity is attributed to the strict upbringing he received at home.
However, despite his amazing abilities on the left wing, and despite scoring 18 league goals and a similar number of assists over the last three seasons, he has yet to score on the national squad, though he has played in most of the qualifying matches. He was outstanding in some games, like the 2-1 victory over England. On Saturday, he hopes to end the drought.
"If it'll happen in Tel Aviv and we win, I'll be the happiest man alive," says Diniyar. "So far I've only had two assists, but what's so important about that before a game of this importance? A win in Israel will be one of the greatest career achievements for all of us."
And what do you feel will happen?
"My feeling is something big and important is coming. It's an important, hard match, which will be followed by happiness or deep disappointment. I don't know if the balance of forces we saw a year ago in Moscow [when the clubs drew 1-1] matches today's reality. Then, Israel wasn't impressive, and we needed to win by at least two or three goals. In the end we suffered a stupid goal and lost two valuable points."
Harder than against England
Despite the less-than-complimentary impression from the first meeting, Bilyaletdinov agrees with the widespread view in Russia put forth by Russian coach Guus Hiddink that the match in Ramat Gan will be harder than the one against England in Moscow. "We know that in contrast to the game against England, against Israel only one team will be under pressure to get the desired results - our team," he says. "Thus, the team's heads preferred to hold the final practice in Cyprus, closer to the Israeli climate and far away from the tense atmosphere we've been subjected to in Moscow. Israel hasn't lost at home in a long time except for the game against Croatia."
What do you know about Israel and how are you preparing yourself for it?
"I know that the Israeli captain Benayoun won't play - and that could benefit us. Though I guess his replacement will do everything possible to preserve your national team's honor. For us it's a regular-season game, and I hope that at home Israel will play open and not build its game purely on breakaway attacks.
"Israel is a technical, disciplined rival, but still, we need to approach it from a position of strength and dictate the pace of the game, like its tactical direction. I imagine Israel's motivation level will be at a high because it's also fighting for its future status before the eyes of all Europe. It would be stupid to expect someone to give us a gift. There's no chance that will happen. We'll have to earn the right for a ticket to the Euro Cup 2008 final."
According to Bilyaletdinov, Russia's team is a tight unit, bereft of egos. The youngster probably wouldn't admit it, but he's one of the reasons for this. The word in Russia is that after the 3-0 loss at Wembley, the Russian players were hanging their heads in the locker-room, and no one dared speak even after Hiddink entered.
Suddenly, one of them got up and said, "We'll take revenge in Moscow." Then the normally quiet Bilyaletdinov stood and shouted, "We'll tear them up in Russia every which way." That charged the team, which went on to victory at home in the return match.
But what if the pressure gets to Russia and it falls into trouble here?
"I believe Hiddink will succeed in guiding us according to plan. He's succeeded in every situation so far, even when we trailed England. He simply came into the locker-room and said 'Raise your head, your self-confidence will get on the nerves of the English.' And that's actually what happened."
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