Connect in the back of the net

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

First games are always nervy affairs, and Russia were thrown into the lions’ den in their Euro 2016 opener. An ageing, pedestrian Russian side were handed the challenge of taking on a youthful England team, and it was always set up to be a testing encounter.

Unfortunately, the main event was marred by disgraceful scenes in Marseille. Drunken English fans were goaded into bloody fights with their Russian counterparts, and you have to question the French security system. It’s no secret that both the English and Russians are fond of a drink or two, and given the current political situation, surely it would have made sense to cease all alcoholic sales.

Back to the football itself, Russian head coach Leonid Slutsky opted for an attacking formation with forwards Alexander Kokorin, Artyom Dzyuba and Fyodor Smolov all included in the line-up. Roman Neustader, a defensive midfielder from Schalke-04, was planted in front of the back four for his first competitive national team start, while young Alexander Golovin partnered him in the middle of the park.

Slutsky’s squad decisions offered reason for optimism, however in the first half, his men were rabbits caught in the headlights. Facing a pacy, hungry England outfit, Russia were struggling to control possession, and the English let them off the hook on a number of occasions.

England’s players were setting a high tempo, and Adam Lallana came close with a driven effort that drifted wide of the post from a great position. The Russian midfield was being overrun, and the front three were given no service.

Things could only get better, and at the start of the second 45, Russia did show signs of improvement. The team were keeping a hold of the ball with more purpose, and following a clever move, Artyom Dzyuba almost broke free in the box.

Sadly, that wasn’t to last. England’s waves of attack began again, and Russia’s tiring defence was struggling. The English were getting plenty of joy on the wings, and their energetic approach eventually broke down the stubborn Russian resistance. Minutes after Igor Akinfeev made a stunning save against Wayne Rooney, Eric Dier smashed a powerful free kick over Akinfeev’s flailing glove.

Nevertheless, Russia kept on plugging away, and incredibly, the team found an equaliser deep into injury time. Georgy Shchennikov swung a deep cross in, and towering defender Vasily Berezutsky looped a stunning header into the far corner.

A captain’s goal, and it gifted Russia a vital, and unexpected, point.

 

The three Russian heroes

Igor Akinfeev, goalkeeper:

The veteran CSKA Moscow stopper silenced all of his critics with a fantastic performance. He made maybe one of the saves of the tournament in the second half, and despite making a positional mistake for England’s goal, Akinfeev deserves all the plaudits he’s receiving.

 

Vasily Berezutsky, defender:

The Russian captain rescued a point with a beautiful header, and he was a rock at the back. Didn’t give Tottenham Hotspur star Harry Kane a sniff.

 

Artyom Dzyuba, forward:

Held the line well up front, and made the best of a hopeless situation. Plenty of long balls were played in towards him, and the powerful striker didn’t let the English defence breathe easy.

 

The three Russian villains

Sergei Ignashevich, defender:

I lost count of the amount of times when the CSKA defender chucked the ball meaninglessly out of play.

Prevented Russia from breaking away on the counter.

 

Oleg Shatov, midfielder:

Easily Russia’s most technically gifted player, he was nowhere to be seen in Marseille. Had nothing to offer going forward, and too many of his passes were directed backwards.

 

Alexander Kokorin, forward:

Played out wide on the right, and couldn’t get anything going for Russia in attack. Was mostly seen doing the dirty work at the other end.

 

Looking forward to the future, Russia surely have to improve to have any chance to get out of the group. On the other hand, the team’s never say die attitude is admirable, and if the players step up their game, more happy days could be around the corner.

The next fixture will be against Slovakia in Lille on Wednesday, and more Russian heroics would be very welcome indeed.

 

Written by Shaun Nicolaides

Follow Shaun on Twitter @zenitfan93

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