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Below is the fourth installment of a Euro 2016 column titled “The Russian Review” by Russian football expert and sports journalist, Shaun Nicolaides.
Having taken a battling draw against England on Saturday, Russia came into their second Euro 2016 clash with Slovakia on a high. Head coach Leonid Slutsky knew that a victory would practically book his team’s place in the next round, while a defeat to pointless Slovakia would blow the group wide open.
Slutsky’s preparation for the game was disrupted by the ongoing skirmishes between Russian and English fans, and UEFA’s announcement that the country is on the verge of getting thrown out only made matters worse. His troops had to somehow focus on their football, and after giving a pretty poor showing against the English, they knew that they had to take their game up another level.
Much to everyone’s surprise, Slutsky didn’t make any changes to the line-up. Alexander Kokorin, Artyom Dzyuba and Fyodor Smolov all kept their places up front, while defensive midfield pairing Alexander Golovin and Roman Neustadter were charged with the task of keeping Slovakia’s Marek Hamsik at bay. The Slovaks were coming off the back of a tough loss to Wales, and this was their last chance to make an impact at the tournament.
Right from the off, the lack of quality on both sides was on show for all to see. Russia, in contrast to their fixture against the English, were trying to attack with more purpose, however there was little direction coming from midfield.
Fyodor Smolov, the Russian Premier League’s top scorer with 20 goals, came closest midway through the half, as he fired a cutting effort wide of the left post. For their part, the Slovaks were looking to take advantage of counters, and a moment of brilliance from their main man Marek Hamsik gave them the advantage.
His stunning pass picked out Vladimir Weiss, Russian defenders Igor Smolnikov and Vasily Berezutsky sold themselves horribly, and Weiss made them pay. Slovakia weren’t done their either – with the break approaching, Hamsik himself curled in a fantastic shot off the woodwork after more lax Russian defending.
Russia were in a real hole, and Slutsky replaced Golovin and Neustadter, who were nothing short of awful, for Pavel Mamaev and Denis Glushakov. Those changes shook up the Russians, and after midfield genius Roman Shirokov was finally introduced, they really got going.
Glushakov pulled them back into the game with ten minutes to go, however despite incessant pressing during the remaining time, the team couldn’t find that all important equaliser.
Three Russian villains
Leonid Slutsky, coach:
Unfortunately, this match was practically lost by Slutsky himself. Kokorin and Smolov, forced out on the flanks with Dzyuba in the middle, are completely ineffective, and his decision to play Golovin out of position (he’s an attacking midfielder for CSKA) cost the team in the first half.
Despite being 34, ex captain Shirokov is the only player in this squad with an imaginative brain, and to leave him on the bench until it’s too late is pure madness.
Things have to be changed up for Monday’s crucial match against Wales.
Roman Neustadter, midfielder:
He plays in the centre of defence for Schalke-04, and he should really stay there. Neustadter was woeful in the first half, and he never looks comfortable when in possession. Hasn’t justified the reasons why he was awarded a Russian passport in order to take part in the competition.
Igor Smolnikov, defender:
Smolnikov has been one of Russia’s few bright sparks at Euro 2016, but sadly, he made a fatal error for Slovakia’s first goal.
Three Russian heroes
Roman Shirokov, midfielder:
Refreshed Russia up when he came on during the second half. He’s the Russian equivalent of Andrea Pirlo, and he fed the onrushing Oleg Shatov who in turn assisted Glushakov for the Russians’ only goal.
Artyom Dzyuba, forward:
Won just about every duel against his Slovakian opponents, and had he received more quality support, the result could have been a different one. Needs more help from his teammates.
Denis Glushakov, midfielder:
Netted Russia’s goal with the clock ticking down, and offered more vision in midfield. You can be almost certain that he will start next Monday.
This loss has rather complicated matters for Russia. One point from two matches is not an ideal situation at all, and the team has to beat Wales in order to stand a chance to qualify for the next stage.
Let’s hope that five days is enough for Slutsky to regain his composure.
Written by Shaun Nicolaides
Follow Shaun on Twitter @zenitfan93
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