Connect in the back of the net

Below is the third installment of a Euro 2016 column titled “The Russian Review” by Russian football expert and sports journalist, Shaun Nicolaides.

Following the chaos of match-day one, Russia head into their vital Group B clash against Slovakia in Lille on the back of a hard earned draw against England. Vasily Berezutsky’s goal in that fixture could prove decisive, however threats of tournament expulsion from UEFA have cast a dark shadow over proceedings.

Before the competition, the last thing we wanted to be talking about is disturbances, but unfortunately, proceedings in Marseille have come to the forefront. Violent, disturbing fights broke out among English and Russian supporters before Saturday’s group opener, and after the Russians set off firecrackers and charged into other sectors inside the stadium, UEFA have thrown down a harsh ultimatum – if such scenes are repeated, Russia will be thrown out of Euro 2016.

UEFA’s announcement has severely unnerved the Russian camp, and both forward Artyom Dzyuba and Russian sports minister Vitaly Mutko have expressed their anger towards the decision. For head coach Leonid Slutsky, it’s not an easy situation at all, and he’s faced with the challenge of preparing for the match with the Slovaks knowing that not everything depends on what happens on the pitch.

Nevertheless, the players have to honour their duty, and the heroic draw against the English has raised hopes. Despite putting on a turgid display, captain Berezutsky rescued a point at the death with a towering header, and if Russia can get a result while playing that poorly, the team should be able to see off Slovakia if they perform closer to their potential.

This is by no means a great Russia side, but they are capable of playing a lot better than in the game with England. The front three of Alexander Kokorin, Artyom Dzyuba and Fyodor Smolov have bundles of talent, and after showing little in the first match, they will be raring to go in this one.

On a positive note, the midfield partnership of Roman Neustadter and Alexander Golovin did a solid job of forcing England out wide, and goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev banished his nightmares from the 2014 World Cup.

Russia’s opponents Slovakia were impressive during the qualifying campaign, and having beaten Spain, they then backed that victory up with a stunning 3-1 friendly win in Germany.

However, the Slovaks, led by Napoli midfield sensation Marek Hamsik, got their Euro 2016 campaign off to a terrible start by losing to Wales, and they have to register points to keep their realistic hopes alive.


Key battles

Roman Neustadter versus Marek Hamsik

The naturalised Ukrainian born Neustadter has filled in for the injured Igor Denisov, and he has the job of shielding the back four.

He managed to keep England at arm’s length in the first fixture, and he will have to again be at his best against the Slovaks.

Unlike the Russians, Slovakia have a true star in Marek Hamsik, and his runs from midfield will be a real danger. When playing the Welsh, he came close to scoring a beautiful goal during the first few minutes.


Artyom Dzyuba versus Jan Durica

Dzyuba, the giant Zenit Saint Petersburg striker, was quiet in Marseille, and he will expect to be more involved in this game.

Slovakia’s Jan Durica, who plays for Lokomotiv Moscow, will know all about him from the Russian Premier League, and it promises to be a fascinating duel between players who have competed against each other on numerous occasions.

The winner of this match will practically have their place in the next stage sealed, and we can expect a committed battle between two workmen like sides.

Slovakia will rely on their standout player to produce the goods, while Russia’s team spirit, matched with better football, could fire them to a dearly needed triumph.


Written by Shaun Nicolaides

Follow Shaun on Twitter @zenitfan93

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