Back in June 2009, the hype train was well and truly rolling around Stamford Bridge.
Interim boss Guus Hiddink, who was also Russia manager at the time, had just led Chelsea to FA Cup glory, and as he climbed onto his horse to ride off into the sunset, he had one parting message for owner Roman Abramovich.
“Sign Yuri Zhirkov.”
The 25-year-old CSKA Moscow wing-back wasn’t exactly a household name at the time, although he had impressed with Russia at Euro 2008. Fans were open-minded, but once his nickname of ‘the Russian Ronaldinho’ began to surface, that hysteria went into overdrive.
Abramovich’s interest had been piqued and an £18m deal was swiftly concluded in July, making Zhirkov the most expensive Russian footballer of all-time – a record that still stands to this day.
What followed was a two-year spell with Chelsea which still divides opinion.
A victim of being compared to Ronaldinho, Zhirkov was instantly facing an uphill battle when it became clear that he was actually nothing like the Brazilian legend. Sure, he could run fast, and he was pretty impressive when it came to dribbling, but that game-changing dominance was not there at all.
Instead, what Chelsea got was an injury-prone left-back who was never, ever going to be genuine competition for the great Ashley Cole, who was widely seen as perhaps the best in his position on the planet.
A knee injury left Zhirkov sidelined before his debut season had even started, but he immediately fell victim to manager Carlo Ancelotti’s system. He wasn’t ousting Cole at left-back, and with the boss playing a narrow diamond midfield, there was no spot for Zhirkov on the wing.
After some sporadic appearances off the bench, Zhirkov was given the chance he was looking for when Cole picked up a nasty ankle injury in February 2010, which eventually needed surgery and kept him out for three months. It was Zhirkov time.
Did he take that chance? Kinda.
March 2010 proved to be a breakout month for Zhirkov. He was undeniably excellent in a Champions League last-16 tie against Jose Mourinho’s Inter juggernaut, pulling out several fantastic blocks to keep the scoreline level during his time on the pitch.
Because Chelsea had lost 2-1 in the first leg, Ancelotti had to go for broke in search of a goal, but his decision to withdraw Zhirkov for Salomon Kalou after 74 minutes was a rare mistake from the Italian, who left the team unbalanced and allowed Samuel Eto’o to strike the decisive goal five minutes later to send Chelsea crashing out.
Then came the 7-1 mauling of Aston Villa later in the month. Zhirkov won two penalties during that game and added a third assist, terrorising the Villans from left-back,
At the end of Zhirkov’s debut season, Chelsea had won the Premier League and FA Cup. The Blues side of 2009/10 is seen as one of the all-time greats in league history, and it’s often forgotten that Zhirkov offered up four assists in 17 appearances during that run.
The problem for Zhirkov was that he never had a chance of retaining his spot in the team. Regardless of how well he played, he was always going back to the bench once Cole was healthy, and that’s exactly what happened.
He spent most of 2010/11 watching on and even missed the best part of three months with a calf injury, and by this point, fans knew he wasn’t Ronaldinho 2.0. He was simply a decent footballer.
With his reputation shrinking through no fault of his own, Chelsea leapt at the chance to offload Zhirkov for £13m when moneybags Anzhi Makhachkala decided he was the next piece in their nonsensical jigsaw in the summer of 2011.
Having made just 16 Premier League starts in two years and being sold on for a loss, all the signs suggest Zhirkov’s time at Chelsea was a failure. There’s no denying that he was not the player Chelsea thought they were buying.
However, Zhirkov was a semi-integral part of one of the greatest sides English football has ever seen. He played his part in the first league-cup double in Chelsea history, and although things didn’t really work out for him in London, Zhirkov’s contribution should not be forgotten.