The relative surprise here that Russia were such convincing winners against the Czech Republic was only matched by the realisation that Greece and Poland were equally as bad as their Czech victims. While memories of the last time the Czechs suffered such a drubbing at the hands of a committed team from the east might be 44 years old, it was noticeable that for some Russians this was verification that their team can and should top the group.
Cautious optimism before the match gave way to shocked delight at half time and at 2am tired and emotional locals were wandering the streets chanting “Ro-ssi-ya” a la the Yanks with “U-S-A”. While it might have been entertaining for them, some of us had to get up at 6am for work. And now the Russian team are set to repeat the wonderful away victory of 17th September 1939 when the Soviet Union, as they were then known, managed to nab a vital win. While the Poles might not be as fearful as 73 years ago, they are not going to look forward to facing a side that took apart the Czechs with quick counter attacks.
Alan Dzageov’s performance was made all the easier when he was allowed the freedom of Wroclaw, along with Arshavin, and he did as he pleased. Perhaps the Poles will have picked up on this and manmark both players, though such is Dzageov’s talent that he can make space with speed and intelligence that is born of coming through the most testing professional league in Russia. It’s 5 years since I first saw Dzagoev play, then he was just a light little lad with a reputation for high quality passing. He came to Ulyanovsk with his first pro team and while he spent much of it being leathered, he still showed small glimpses of what he could do. It came as no surprise when the North Ossetian got a big move to the capital, though at the time he was rated as the 3rd or 4th best player in his side. And that is what made him so dangerous on Friday, his grit and determination. He’s from the Caucasus, from an area where toughness is bred into men and women, where strength in body is prized and nobody gives up without a major scrap. So what then for the Poles?
For sure the Russian commentators and journalists were happy with the win, though realistically called their group “the graveyard”. They asked how it was fair that one of the other 3 could possibly make it to the quarter finals with such a lack of quality on display. However this could go against Russia if they figure it’s going to be a cakewalk. This is a team who hit a stagefrightened Ireland in Dublin for 3 goals, having been comprehensively outplayed by a poor Slovakian side who seemed to have watched “300” before kick off and determined that bodies may fall but their goal remain intact. Roared on by a fanatical home support, with national pride at stake and with history (recent) not on their side, Poland could frustrate Russia into a stalemate something similar the home draw the Finns inflicted on the Russians during the Phony War. It might not be pretty to watch, but Poland has form in getting something out of nothing.
A more remarkable sign for Russia was not the great performance by Dzagoev, rather the Torres-like inability to hit the net from close range of Kerzhakov. The Zenit striker is a friend and favourite of team selectors Arshavin and FA President Fursenko, so he will be trusted again. And this trust might well pay off as the striker can show himself to be top class by destroying the Polish defence like a T-26 tank in 1939, it depends on if he decides to take his brain with him to Warsaw.
A rather worrying aspect of Russia’s sparkling performance last Friday was the off-field behaviour of some of the supporters. Having been told not to display Soviet flags or those from the old Russian Empire, fans did just that in a very clear move to antagonise their hosts. Some of the chants were less than savoury and while there was only a tiny minority of the Russian following who did, as commented upon and condemned immediately by Russian TV, make abusive sounds towards the Czech-Ethiopian player, the attitude here has been very critical of portraying the country in such a light. What happened during and after the match, however, is now subject of an investigation by UEFA. Having been told to remove the black, yellow and white Imperial flags with offensive slogans daubed on them, Russian fans abused and then attacked match stewards. This continued after the match with severe beatings handed out by groups of fans masquerading as fans to local stewards. The shameless nature of this criminal activity was compounded by the head of the Russian fans union tweeting boastfully of “defeating” the Poles again and giving them the hammering they deserve. Having personally witnessed the brutality of such idiots, and of Russian match stewards at a Champions League match 2 years ago, it does not bode well for the match in Warsaw. While alcohol may offer a partial excuse, the underlying arrogance and aggression needs to be addressed, and urgently so as Russia is not yet accepted as a proper place to hold a tournament despite the huge number of advantages it possesses. How the “fans” behave in Warsaw and beyond will be heavily scrutinised at home and abroad.
Though to end on a positive note, while it’s generally expected that Russia could run up a big score against Poland, the inconsistency bred into the side by Advocaat and the balancing act he has to perform between his paymasters and superstar Arshavin, there might be a battle in Warsaw to exceed anything the Russians expect. Then again, being Russian they’ll expect that too. If this Russian team can charge out of the blocks, it can be a massacre. If they don’t score early, it might be a long and frustrating night. And given that this is a day of celebration at the end of a long, long weekend, Russia Day could end with even bigger cheer or with a major backlash against a team not quite the darlings of the nation yet.