This isn’t your slightly older brother’s Russia. The dazzling surprise package of Euro 2008 is long gone. This much we know. Failure to qualify for the 2010 edition of the World Cup bore that out, as did the dire group stage bow out in the most recent European Championship. The stars of the dynamic Andrei Arshavin, Roman Pavlyuchenko, and Pavel Pogrebnyak have all burned out (in varying degrees of the spectacular) in the last six years, and now, well, nobody is quite sure what to expect from Russia.
Heading into Euro 2012, the boys of 2008 were still at the core of the team. The aforementioned leading lights of that semi-final team and much of the 2008 Zenit St. Petersburg UEFA Cup triumph were all in decline. And yet there was hope that Russia, with an average age of 29, would suddenly awaken again on the European stage, entertain as they had done four years before, and surprise once more. They didn’t. Despite a great start, a 4-1 demolition of the Czech Republic, dour performances against Poland and Greece followed, and the Russians were out. The magic just wasn’t there, and it became clear that changes were not only necessary, but in the offing not long after the close of the tournament.
Enter Fabio Capello.
Fresh off of a polarizing spell in charge of England, Capello seemed to have gotten one of international football’s sleeping giants back on track on the other side of Europe. Russia topped their qualifying group, despite indifferent performances against Azerbaijan, putting on some impressive counter attacking shows along the way. Now, Capello’s boys are set to test their mettle in Brazil, this time with an average age of 27 and boasting some fresh young talent, joining Algeria, Belgium, and South Korea in Group H.
However, the outlook is not great.
Never mind the impressive qualification campaign. Never mind the results in the pre-tournament friendlies. Russia’s best and most creative player, hub of the team, and captain Roman Shirokov will miss the World Cup through injury and it isn’t clear what they can do without him.
Throughout this World Cup cycle, Russia has looked to Shirokov for its creative spark. Disciplined and well organized, the Russians play on the break, but have really only played through the Krasnodar-by-way-of-Zenit playmaker when moving forward. In his absence, Capello has looked to Oleg Shatov and Alan Dzagoev to pick up the slack in friendlies against Norway and Morocco, but the two never produced much to write home about. If one of the two youngsters don’t step into Shirokov’s boots, it’s hard to see Russia going too far this summer.
CSKA Moscow netminder Igor Akinfeev will be making his 70th appearance for his country when Russia open their tournament against South Korea on the 17th. With excellent reflexes and superb communication abilities, Russia have got one of the most underrated goalkeepers in the game going into the World Cup. He would be thought of as one of the best in the world if he plied his trade outside of his home country and may well be come July if Russia go deep into the tournament—he would have to stand on his head to get them that far.
Russia’s largest problem headed into the competition lies in the lead footedness of their backline. Experienced and commanding in the air though they are, CSKA pair Sergei Ignashevich and Vasili Berezutski are slow to turn and cannot handle pace. Fullbacks Dimitri Kombarov and Andrey Yeshchenko can run, but Capello will sit the back four deep. Organized and experienced, if Russia can stay focused without the ball, their defensive deficiencies ought to be covered in the group stage.
In terms of the midfield, a finer point cannot be put on this—Russia will miss Roman Shirokov. Although the technically capable Viktor Faizulin and all-action Igor Denisov will provide the energy and grit needed to counter attack from deep, just what will happens after the ball is won back by Russia is a question mark. As previously mentioned, Dzagoev and Shatov have been tried in the Shirokov role, and Denis Glushakov may be run out in the position following his recovery from injury as well, but the creative alternatives are uninspiring for Russian well-wishers.
If they are put into positions to attack, Russia’s front three can be quite tricky. Capello favorite Aleksandr Kerzhakov moves as intelligently as anyone, while wide men and fellow Alexandrs Korkorin and Samedov offer a more direct, inside-out approach from the wings. Korkorin has been in good form for the national side with four goals in eight qualification matches, while Samedov put away seven and set up seven goals from the right wing for Lokomotiv Moscow in 2013-14. Expect to see Aleksei Ionov utilized as a substitute to inject pace and trickery, and Yuri Zhirkov for that little bit of experience and magic when needed.
With the defence sitting deep and midfield lacking in flair, Aleksander Kerzhakov’s natural instinct to drop deep and create will be crucial for Russia in Brazil. If Shatov, Dzagoev, or Glushakov cannot pick the right passes for the forwards, Capello’s No.11 will have to take the initiative to create himself and distribute for the men on his flanks.
Again, with Shirokov out and some inexperience in the side, nobody is quite sure what to expect from Russia’s 2014 outfit. They are perhaps lucky to have been drawn in a group alongside Algeria and South Korea, and should find themselves moving on to the knockout stages, if the defence holds steady. To expect anything more than that would be unfair.
Ideal starting XI (4-3-3)
Akinfeev; Yeshchenko, Berezutski, Ignashevich, Kombarov; Fayzulin, Denisov, Shatov; Samedov, Kerzhakov, Korkorin.