World Cup Russia 2018 – The journey begins

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The result of an over-sized pencil in the Lithuanian colours. I also showed him photos of Gediminas’ Castle in the centre of Vilnius and he was he immediately added the country to growing his must-see list. So I took herself to begin the build-up to Russia 2018.

 

That is what Saturday’s friendly was, a build up to the greatest event in the world (trademarked by hundreds of events including the Mullacrew Fair in Louth).

Amid the noise on doping surrounding Russia, the country can focus on something which most believe is untainted by serious efforts to improve fitness to match the superstars from Germany, Brazil, Holland and Spain. Slutsky, Mutko, VVP and company aim to be a serious power at Russia 2018 and the visit of Lithuania was the first step.

Two weeks ago in Lithuania I caught up with a friend who works with Zalgiris. While disappointed with the National Team in European qualifiers, where they finished fifth of six teams, shipping 18 goals in ten matches (eight in away to England and Switzerland), he traveled with the squad to Malta last June.

He said their pathetic 2-0 loss was down to epic drinking sessions in Bay Street the night before the game. In 2015, they lost six of eight games, narrowly beating San Marino and drawing with Slovenia.

At their lowest ever world ranking (128), the penniless Association were very glad to be sacrificial lambs in Spartak Moscow’s home stadium.

They weren’t without hope, especially with their new Manager. I met Edgaras Jankauskas five years ago when he was rounding out his career in the 1st Division with Fakel Voronezh, he was and is a disciple of hardworking, attacking football.

Despite a playing career that stretched from the MLS to top flight football in Russia, Spain, Portugal, Latvia, Lithuania, Belgium, France, Cyprus and Scotland (as part of the Romanov Revolution), he’s an extreme novice in the dugout.

A couple of assistant roles in Russia and Scotland, a successful season with newly promoted FC Trakai in Lithuania (whom he led to 4th place) made him a surprise choice.

His time with Fakel was mercifully short and he told me that next time he returned to Russia it would be as a head coach – I just didn’t think it would be of his national team!

He began with a narrow 0-1 loss last Wednesday in Romania, not bad considering. These pair of fixtures build towards three games in just over a week (May 29-June 6) when the men in Yellow and Green try win the biennial Baltic Cup against Estonia and Latvia, followed by a match with arch enemies (and former territory) Poland.

Then it’s down to the business of making Russia 2018. England again stand in the way (unless they do the right thing and boycott the World Cup), with Scotland looking to make up for choking in Euro ’16 qualifying. Slovakia (Ireland’s upcoming opponents), Slovenia (again) and the dastardly Maltese round out the group. A realistic aim is for five to eight points and fifth place.

 

Russia have a busy year coming up which begun on Saturday followed by a glamour date with France. Russia have 1 more match in Austria against the Czechs before taking on England, Slovakia and Wales in France.

If Slutsky can manage some magic and stay away from the clutches of a foreign club, he’s scheduled to drop the day job with CSKA Moscow and focus solely on Russia through 2017 and to glory in Russia 2018.

I’d predicted that Russia would win by three to six goals and they duly got a 3-0 win, but not without discomfort. Clever link play and solid defending saw them pinned back for long periods of the first half.

The atmosphere in the stadium was boosted by the sale of almost 25,000 tickets for 50 to 100 roubles (0.60 to 1.25 euros) which saw a huge number of kids turn out. For trying to develop an affection for the game in Russia it was clever, but as in the game, Russian link play fell flat.

In the best opportunity to market the sport for years, there was nothing about where to watch matches in any of the three professional leagues. Nothing about where kids can go join and play. And no extended math-day experience to keep the wandering attention of kids and daytrippers.

A brilliant idea ruined by the fatal inability in Russia to think beyond the immediate order. And on the pitch it was more of the same.

105 places separated the teams in the World Rankings (Lithuania are at their lowest ever position of 128th) and with a little intelligence and adventure Russia could have had two goals within ten minutes.

As it was the visitors grew in confidence, having the best chances and causing the glacially slow Russian defence no end of problems. Slutsky showed in his narrow selection view that he’s not interested in building for 2018, or even 2017, instead he will get his side embarrassed in France and hand over the project to someone for 2017-18.

The dam looked to have burst when Russia scored in the 41st minute (shortly after having a goal wrongly disallowed), had Lithuania made it to half-time scoreless, it would have been a very different second half.

As it turned out, Krasnodar player Fedor Smolov’s goal was not added to until the 61st minute, at which time Lithuania visibly tired. Nineteen year-old Aleksandr Golovin of CSKA Moscow made it two goals from two appearances before Spartak’s Denis Glushakov made it 3-0 in the 72nd minute.

Poor Denis had to wait almost five minutes for his goal to be posted on the scoreboard on a night when presentation seemed to be lacking on many fronts.

 

Lithuania had a few more jousts at Guilherme’s goal and the naturalised Brazilian took off at least 2 good stops after his half-time introduction to not embarrass the home team.

The return of favourite and FC Zurich loan player Aleksandr Kerzhakov (who only a week ago was forced to write off a million euros following an investment scam in Voronezh) was greeted with delight by the fans.

Had he managed to get to the pace of the game and score a goal, the house would have come down.

Russia remain unbeaten in friendlies against the first country to leave the USSR and on track to keep hopes high before crushing dreams in the Summer. Certainly after watching England’s comeback against Germany, the creaking Russian defenders will already be thinking about taking a few doses of meldonium before the Euro Finals.

Despite appearing to spread the net for players, it was more of the same from Russia. An aging, slow and increasingly error prone defence yet the head coach bottles blooding quality younger players.

New blood needed in attack yet a capricious 33-year-old (Kerzhakov) is brought back and if rumours about Arshavin being recalled to the fold are true, then the current Kairat player will be delighted with his mega-bucks move to Kazakhstan.

There is hope for Russia, slim though it may be, for 2017 and 2018. Eight years ago I watched a very young Arseny Logashov playing for Sportakademik Club in the old First Division and three years later with the current Lithuanian boss in Voronezh.

Now back with Lokomotiv Moscow, he looks unlikely to add to his single cap, despite deserving more games for club and country. Fear of defeat is Leonid’s crippling weakness and this is going to ruin what should be a great legacy for him.

Just like the best intentions of the Russian FA on Saturday’s ticket strategy, a quick fix in the short term with no medium-long term joined up thinking, is going to continue football’s under-performance in Russia nationally and globally.

The Author

Alan Moore

Russian based sports journalist and consultant, working with major clubs including Hajduk Split, Eintracht Frankfurt, Lokomotiv and Spartak Moscow. Current host of Capital Sports FM in Moscow, former international boxer and semi-professional footballer and commentated at the FIFA World Cup 2018.

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