"It's like learning to walk again." Viktor Claesson returns after a year on the sidelines

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FC Krasnodar’s Swedish midfielder was in sparkling form before his serious injury, and this week he returned to the pitch after a 14-month break.

Krasnodar signed Claesson in January 2017 from Elfsborg, and he took just four minutes to score on his debut. The strike was the only goal of the game against Fenerbahce in the Europa League second round 1st leg. Twelve days later, Claesson bagged a double in the Russian Cup quarter-final against Ural Ekaterinburg, but the Black-Greens were knocked out in a penalty shootout having been 3-0 up at one stage.

At first Krasnodar struggled to attract Claesson to the club. Initially, neither he nor his girlfriend Julia wanted to come to Russia. The club convinced Viktor to visit the city, and he decided to make the transition when he visited Krasnodar stadium. "When Vitya went out to see the pitch, we turned on the sound: “Viktor Claesson has scored!" and a photo montage appeared on all four huge scoreboards with him in a Krasnodar kit,” recalled former sporting director Aleksey Zinin in an interview with Match TV. “It was powerful. I looked at Vitya and saw that he desperately wanted to stay." Julia, according to Zinin, agreed to the move when she returned to Sweden with Viktor.

Another key factor was Andreas Granqvist, who was playing in his fourth season at Krasnodar when his compatriot arrived. Claesson confirmed that he had repeatedly spoken with his Swedish team-mate before the transfer, and after Viktor joined his new team, the defender interviewed him for the club's TV channel.

In the first six months, the newcomer scored only one goal in the Russian Premier Liga - again against Ural - but in the 2017/18 season, Claesson played in all matches and finished second top goalscorer with ten goals behind Fedor Smolov (14). After the striker's departure to Lokomotiv, the Swede had already become the most effective member of the team with 12 RPL goals for the 2018/19 season. Claesson has only missed one RPL matchday in these two and a half years, on 15 November 2018, due to an injury in a Nations League match against Russia. Another national team call-up in June 2019 also ended with an injury, but a much more serious one - a rupture of the cruciate knee ligaments.

“I hadn’t had any serious injuries, I didn't understand what it was like”

On 10 June 2019, Claesson left the Santiago Bernabeu on crutches, where the Swedish national team lost 3-0 to the Spaniards in a Euro 2020 qualification match. The player was replaced in the 27th minute after a collision with Jordi Alba, and in the second half, the Swedes conceded three times.

"I immediately felt that something was broken," the Krasnodar player recalled in January 2020 in an interview with Sportbladet. "I Immediately thought that it was serious, and the MRI confirmed that the cruciate ligament was torn. When the knee was examined, it turned out that the meniscus and cartilage were still damaged. Then we decided to do a cartilage transplant. This meant that it would take longer to recover, but my knee would be healthy again."

The player has undergone two operations. According to him, during the first procedure the cruciate ligament and meniscus were restored, and the cartilage was removed. During the second procedure, the cartilage was transplanted back.

"It was a very difficult time," Claesson said. “I had never had any serious injuries up until that point, so I didn't really understand what it was like. If I had, it would have been even worse for me. After a while, I realised how long it would take to get back. I was at the peak of my career, I was in great shape, everything was going well both on and off the field. It was a hard moment to live through."

“I stayed positive all the time”

The doctors gave Claesson about a year to recover, but Viktor expected to return faster. "The doctors predicted that the recovery would take from 10 to 12 months, and in this case I would have returned in the summer," the player said in early 2020. “I set a goal to return before the end of the season.”

In the first days of 2020, the midfielder had already started running at the Djurgårdens training ground. "It's like learning to walk again," Claesson told Sportbladet at the time, " But you learn fast, you move forward, and it's fun. It's hard at first when you jump with crutches, but I've made good progress in the last few weeks.

“All this time I remained positive. At first, when you realise how much you will have to miss, it is difficult. But then you switch and try to look at rehabilitation as a challenge."

Claesson went with Krasnodar to their training camp in Spain, where he worked out in the gym alongside Remi Cabella and Uros Spajic, but also, according to Murad Musaev, started working with the ball. "We do two training sessions a day. A day off at Russian clubs means that there will only be one session. When you are injured, you train even more than fit players," the Swede said.

“You need to take your time with Claesson”

In March, the midfielder returned to full training with the team, but at this point, the RPL season was suspended due to the coronavirus lockdown. The pandemic also affected Euro 2020, which UEFA moved to the summer of 2021, but Claesson only benefited from this decision.

"From a purely football point of view, I will be in the best condition in 2021," Viktor said in a March interview with SVT. "Although my goal was to return this summer, I felt that I would not be in the best shape for Euro 2020. So the European championship moving to next summer is an advantage for me."

Claesson spent the enforced break in Sweden and kept in shape with Djurgårdens. At the end of May, the Swede returned to Krasnodar along with Markus Berg and Kristoffer Olsson, but unlike his compatriots, he did not play again. In addition to Viktor, Spajic missed the restart of the season. "Both of them just had their first training sessions in the group," Musaev explained in July. “We won't see them this season. It's hard for them that we don't actually have group training, just recovery and games. I think they will be ready for next season."

The manager had planned to pick the midfielder for the second matchday fixture against Lokomotiv Moscow, but Claesson did not go because of his increased temperature. Returning after a 14-month hiatus fell on the first home game of the season. Krasnodar had already scored two goals against Arsenal Tula when the fans started chanting the Swede's name as he prepared to come on. In the 75th minute, Claesson officially returned.

"You don't have to rush with Claesson: today it's 15 minutes, and then you need to see how he will feel," Musaev said after the match about the player's condition.

Only he and his team know how happy Viktor was. Post-match interviews with players were not conducted, and the Swede closed his Instagram page from fans. "I have such a character," Claesson admitted in an interview with Championat in 2018. “I'm not a fan of talking and demonstrating a lot. I don't want to be the centre of attention. I don't need popularity. I like the silence. My instagram page is my free zone where I stay with my friends. I want it to continue like this."

On the next matchday, Krasnodar will travel to Ekaterinburg. Claesson scored his debut goals against Ural in his Russian career. It is possible that his first goal after the extended break will be scored against the same opponents.

Photo: Andrey Shramko/Krasnodar


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