Four years ago in Austria and Switzerland, an exciting Russia team surprised many by reaching the semi-finals of Euro 2008. It was a golden time for Russian football, with Zenit St Petersburg, led by the talismanic Andrei Arshavin, having lifted the UEFA Cup just a couple of months earlier.
With Arshavin, Roman Pavlyuchenko and Yuri Zhirkov all taking advantage of big money moves to the Premier League, the future too looked bright and there were big expectations for the World Cup in South Africa two years later. But unfortunately the Russians failed to qualify, losing a two-legged play-off to unfashionable Slovenia. Guus Hiddink left his post, leaving fellow Dutchman Dick Advocaat the job of restoring Russia’s place among the footballing elite.
Much of the squad from the successful 2008 campaign remained, with the spine of the team still largely intact. The draw for the qualifying stages was relatively kind too, with only Republic of Ireland and Slovakia expected to cause any real problems. The latter of those definitely did, winning 1-0 in Moscow. And, despite a hard-fought 3-2 victory in Dublin, a stalemate against Armenia meant there were more questions for Advocaat’s experienced team to answer. They did so with aplomb, collecting 13 points from their last five games to finish top of the group.
While they were expected to qualify, it is commendable that the Russians did so while some of their own key players were experiencing turmoil at domestic level. Arshavin was being increasingly criticised for his under-par performances at Arsenal, Pavlyuchenko was way down the pecking order at White Hart Lane and Pavel Pogrebnyak’s career was stagnating at Stuttgart.
With Arshavin and Pavlyuchenko now back settled in their native land and Pogrebnyak having discovered a new lease of life at Fulham, the key men going forward are now in the optimum mental state at the right time.
At the back Russia are an extremely solid and familiar unit. Injuries to Vasiliy Berezutskiy and Roman Shishkin have forced Advocaat to shuffle his defensive pack slightly, but in Sergei Ignashevich he has a defensive stalwart and organisational master who will be looking to have a good tournament in what may well turn out to be his international swansong. Behind him, Igor Akinfeev is generally considered to be one of the continent’s best stoppers.
The midfield selection will also be recognizable to followers of European football. Advocaat may opt for an all-Zenit force in the centre of the park with Roman Shirokov, Igor Denisov and Konstantin Zyryanov. Arshavin and Alan Dzagoev are dead-certs to start just behind the lone striker, where Russia have several options. The aforementioned Pavlyuchenko and Pogrebnyak are joined by 59-times capped Aleksandr Kerzhakov and young Aleksandr Kokorin – who is tipped to be the heir to Arshavin’s throne.
Russia will be delighted to have landed in what is, on paper at least, the weakest group in the tournament. Also including Czech Republic, hosts Poland and the Greeks, Group A is wide ope,n but Advocaat’s men may be narrow favourites to qualify as group winners. Whether they can progress any further than the quarter-finals will depend on the form of their marquee stars.
One to watch – Alan Dzagoev: The technically-sound CSKA Moscow midfielder burst on to the scene at the age of 18 – sparking interest from Real Madrid – but his development has somewhat stagnated since. Now 21, Euro 2012 is a great opportunity for him to re-establish himself as hot property in European football.
Anyukov – A Berezutskiy – Ignashevich – Zhirkov
Shirokov – Denisov – Zyryanov
Arshavin – Dzagoev