Connect in the back of the net

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

The miserable days with Fabio Capello at the helm are still fresh in every Russian football fan’s mind. Russia have endured a dismal few years on the international scene, and after a chaotic qualifying campaign, Leonid Slutsky’s flailing Russian troops are preparing for a third major tournament on the trot.

When Slutsky was appointed head coach towards the end of the qualifying phase, it was greeted by sheer relief by the Russian public. Under Capello, Russia were transformed into a toothless, dour side, and Slutsky’s arrival has raised hopes that the glory days of 2008 can be rekindled. Nevertheless, he’s got a huge task at hand, and his team have been drawn into a tough looking group with England, Slovakia and Wales.

Since Russia heroically made the semi-finals of Euro 2008, the country’s footballing fortunes have suffered a serious downturn, and pessimism among fans is at a record high. The team flopped at the 2014 World Cup, and at club level, big spending organisations such as Zenit Saint Petersburg have not been able to perform. One of the biggest problems is the lack of talent coming through the ranks, and with an average age of almost 29, Russia have the second oldest squad in France.

The national championship has been swamped by overpaid foreigners, and promising junior players are simply not given the chance to show what they are made of. Academy products are forced to move aboard to get match practice, and more often than not, they are forgotten about by their parent clubs.

Other Russian players’ development is stunted by their extortionate wages. A perfect example is 25 year old forward Alexander Kokorin, a striker who was named as a potential world star just a few years ago. After putting on some impressive displays for Dynamo Moscow, some of Europe’s top clubs were after him, however it’s no secret that his huge Dynamo salary talked him out of taking the next step.

Kokorin eventually joined Zenit this winter, and it’s hoped that he will finally let his talent blossom at these championships. He will form a potent looking striking partnership with giant club-mate Artyom Dzyuba, and Russia’s attacking line will cause all three group opponents problems.

Russian Premier League top scorer Fyodor Smolov, who netted 20 goals for fourth placed Krasnodar, is expected to carry his goalscoring form into the tournament, and Slutsky had all three on the pitch at one time in recent friendly matches.

With Kokorin’s technical ability, Dzyuba’s height and Smolov’s killer instinct, Russia can’t be underestimated. They will be supported by skilful playmaker Oleg Shatov, and having starred for Zenit, new Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho was quoted as admiring the midfielder.

A bright future lies ahead of him, and he is one of the few players in this Russian squad to have top class potential. Keep an eye on young Alexander Golovin too – the CSKA Moscow representative has been progressing at a rate of knots, and he could be pushing for a spot in the starting line-up.

Sadly, apart from those two, Russia’s midfield is devoid of pace and imagination. Captain Roman Shirokov’s best days are behind him, and head coach Leonid Slutsky has been handed some big injury blows. Alan Dzagoev was ruled out of the tournament due to a broken foot sustained in CSKA’s final league game of the season, and key defensive midfielder Igor Denisov was sent home after being stretchered off against the Serbians.

Denisov’s absence leaves a gaping void, and his replacement Artur Yusupov isn’t good enough to compensate for his loss. That hole in front of the back line will surely be exploited by other teams, and in defence, Russia come up short. The everlasting Sergei Ignashevich and Vasily Berezutsky can’t go on forever, and their ageing legs will struggle against the likes of England wonderkid Marcus Rashford. Ukrainian born, German playing Roman Neustader, who has just received his Russian passport, could help out if Slutsky opts to put him in the centre of defence.

Goalkeeping isn’t a reliable factor, either. Igor Akinfeev, known across the world for making a comical mistake against South Korea two years ago in Brazil, simply has no competition. Zenit’s Yury Lodygin is too unreliable, and Guilherme, a Lokomotiv stopper who originates from Brazil, is the obvious number three.

Russia begin their Euro 2016 adventure against England on Saturday, and many in the country are already writing off their players’ chances. England’s pace and youthfulness should be enough to see off a pretty turgid Russian outfit, but if Shatov, Kokorin and Dzyuba are allowed to take advantage of England’s defensive frailties, a surprise could be on the cards.

Whatever happens on Saturday, the following fixtures against Slovakia and Wales will prove crucial. Russia do have realistic chances of making it to the knockout stages, and with the 2018 World Cup just around the corner, the country can’t afford to put on a poor showing.


Written by Shaun Nicolaides

Follow Shaun on Twitter @zenitfan93

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