Connect in the back of the net

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

Ten days into Euro 2016, the deciding group stage matches are upon us. France, Italy, Switzerland and Spain have already qualified, and now it’s the turn of Group B. While England have practically sealed their place in the next round, Russia and Wales will do battle in Toulouse, and it’s a match which is shaping up to be an absolute thriller.

During these championships, Russia have largely disappointed, and it’s the country’s last chance in this tournament to leave a positive impression. After grabbing a dramatic draw against England thanks to captain Vasily Berezutsky’s header, the team went down to the Slovaks 1:2, and having played so dismally, Leonid Slutsky’s men are fighting an uphill battle. Russia, on and off the pitch, have been slammed by all journalists and fans, and this does have the feel of a Russia against the world match.

Everyone except the Russians are willing the team to get knocked out, and Slutsky has to use the hatred as an added impetus. Over the years, Russia have got used to being the schoolboy picked on by all the bullies, and such a mentality has never prevented the country from achieving great things.

The players have to draw on their fighting qualities against the Welsh, and make no mistake – count out the Russians at your peril.

Nevertheless, a tough challenge is awaiting the team, and Wales won’t lie down easily. Wales have been slowly improving as a football nation, and in Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, they have two top class players.

Much was expected of Real Madrid’s Bale coming into Euro 2016, and he has practically been carrying Chris Coleman’s team by himself. He netted two stunning free kicks in their first two fixtures, and without him, this Welsh side, made up of largely average footballers, wouldn’t be anywhere near a last 16 berth.

Wales’ 2:1 victory over Slovakia has given them a fantastic opportunity to seal an historic qualification, and despite falling to England by the same scoreline, their ranks will be full of confidence. Led by Bale, the Welsh will cause Slutsky a number of headaches, especially given Russia’s showings in France.

The Russian midfield has looked pedestrian, dour and downright boring, and something has to be changed for this match. By all accounts, super sub Denis Glushakov looks set to start his first game in the middle of the pitch, and we will have to see if calls to see 34 year old Roman Shirokov installed into the line-up are heeded upon.

Slutsky got his tactics all wrong against the Slovaks, and having realised his mistake late on, his substitutes made a real impact, almost saving the game. All Russian fans are crossing their fingers that he has learnt from his mistakes, and it will be fascinating to find out if he has opted to keep his goalless front three of Alexander Kokorin, Artyom Dzyuba and Fyodor Smolov together.

The trio have yet to register a shot on target during the tournament, however given Slutsky’s unwillingness to rotate the squad, they could all be given a third chance.

Whatever he decides, Russia have no other option than to attack. With one point to their names so far, only a win will keep the team’s hopes of progressing alive, and his players have been forced into coming out of their shells.

Wales, a team set up for the counter, will be ready to soak up Russian pressure, and this will be a real test of Russia to see whether they are capable of laying siege to the opponents’ net.

 

Key battles

Igor Smolnikov versus Neil Taylor

Zenit defender Smolnikov has been one of Russia’s leading figures at Euro 2016, and his galloping runs from deep have been causing opposing teams havoc.

While suspect at the back, he can race forward as good as anyone else, and Welsh left back Neil Taylor better be ready for what he is about to face.

Taylor had a shocker against England, and he is set up to struggle against Smolnikov’s raw pace.

 

Denis Glushakov against Gareth Bale

In the previous game with Slovakia, Glushakov scored a beautiful header having emerged from the bench, and he is a sure bet to start this time around.

As well as joining the attack, he will be expected to help out in defence, and he will have the difficult job of taking on Gareth Bale. Wales’ main dragon is on the prowl, and Russia cannot afford to give up any cheap free kicks in and around their box.

Russian players have huge pressure on their backs, and another lacklustre performance will not be accepted back home. With the match’s importance impossible to ignore, the nerves will be jangling, and Slutsky has to galvanise his troops for one more war.

It’s now or never, Russia have to grasp the initiative and embrace the moment.

 

Written by Shaun Nicolaides

Follow Shaun on Twitter @zenitfan93

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