The 2014 World Cup in Brazil marks the Russian national team’s first world cup since 2002’s World Cup in Korea and Japan; a greatly surprising underachievement considering the wealth of talent at their disposal over the last decade. A swashbuckling semi-final run in EURO 2008, with the emergence of a new generation of bright young footballing talent under the watchful eyes of Guus Hiddink brought back great hope of restoring the nation back to the successful ” Soviet Union” era which saw them grace over 7 world cups with the zenith being a 4th place finish in 1966. However in the time since 2008, the development has hit major roadblocks. They rather surprisingly failed to qualify for South Africa 2010 losing a playoff against Slovenia; a defeat which caused long time coach Hiddink to leave his post. Dick Advocaat’s reign saw them enter EURO 2012 with a bright start, but only to eventually crash out in the group stages.
Enter one of the game’s greatest managers, Fabio Capello. Capello signed for Russia under some of the most surprising and mysterious circumstances, stemming from his jaw dropping reported salary of 7.8 million pounds a year (fronted no less from an “anonymous donor”). Aside from the off field controversy, the man they call “The Don” brought his much needed pragmatism and Italian method of organized defending to the Russian national team, setting them on the ascendancy over the last two years. In the run to qualify for Brazil 2014, they turned a few heads ousting Group F favourites Portugal, finishing on top of the group and thereby ensured automatic qualification.
Capello, like to so many teams he has managed and succeeded with has brought much needed defensive solidity and discipline to this Russian side, an aspect of the side which has been awkwardly handled in the past. He has abandoned Dick Advocaat’s fluid and attacking 4-3-3 which often saw defensive aspects take a back seat, into a harder working, direct and counter attacking 4-1-4-1/4-3-3 against the bigger teams, or a controlling and high tempo 4-2-3-1 against some of the weaker nations. The change in system and discipline has worked wonders for Russia; Finishing first in a difficult qualifying group was without a doubt a direct consequence of their defensive stability, having conceded just 5 goals in the 10 games played! While the defensive record is outstanding, they have at times struggled in front of goal with the strikers not on the best of form. However several goals from midfielders have helped ease the pressure on them, but they have to step their game up if they want to get to the round of 16 in a somewhat treacherous group with Belgium being the frontrunners to take the pole position. They are quite crazily the “underdogs to be the underdogs”. The odds are stacked against them and squad is nowhere near perfect, at times struggling to score under pressure, but under the wisdom of Capello, you can place your bets on Russia to cause a few shocks. They will be looking to set the stage for when they host the tournament in 2018 themselves.
In goal, Igor Akinfeev is undoubtedly one of the world’s most talented goalkeepers and will be integral to any success at Brazil. He commands a defence with a first choice pairing of Sergei Ignashevich and Berezutskiy, both experienced hardmen who have the ability to step up and dictate play in possession while at the same time possess the physical attributes to track and outmuscle the best of strikers. The fullbacks however can hardly be spoken of with as much security. At right back 27 year old Alexey Kozlov has had a somewhat mixed campaign, having had equal measures of disappointing and impressive performances. His defensive skills are well established bar a few concentration issues, but the major concern are his uncomfortable attacking skills, a far cry from the overlooked Anyukov who staked his reputation as a rampaging full back bombarding down the flanks . The left back position having been often the subject of debate, could be taken up by Kombarov, Eschenko and even Yuri Zhirkov the versatile left midfielder. But Kombarov’s impressive qualifiying campaign which saw him secure a place in Goal.com’s UEFA World cup qualifiying best XI should make him first choice.The core of Russia’s strength are from it’s midfielders .
The midfield trio of Denisov, Fayzulin and Shirokov were exceptionally energetic throughout qualifying ,always closing down and snapping at the heels of their opponents. However Shirkov’s injury presents a huge problem for Capello having to find a seemingly impossible replacement for his goalscoring midfield maestro. Denisov, the vastly experienced and wonderfully skilled veteran anchorman is primarily tasked with constantly breaking up play, playing in the “Makelele Role” and acting as the gel holding the whole team together. Victor Fayzulin the amazingly sharp playmaker, who in the absence of Shirkov will have even more of a burden on his shoulder with the team counting on him to put attacks together, keep the play flowing, and setting up counter attacks by threading in dangerous and direct through balls. The weight of this team is carried by this engine room that provide the ability to soak up pressure and set up lightning counter attack at will. But it takes attackers to score goals and win games too, and in that department this Russian team certainly have one of its golden generations.
Alan Dzagoev, Russia’s silver lining in the cloud of EURO 2012 will most probably slot in as a left side midfielder, drifting in at most opportunities to his preferred position behind the striker. If Capello does go ahead with the 4-2-3-1 on light of Shirkov’s injury, Dzagoev will slot in behind the striker, while the level headed and vastly experienced Yuri Zhirkov, the star of EURO 2008 will take control on the left flank. Zhirkov’s ability to read the game is outstanding and he is a true “defensive winger” with his high workrate. When conserving a lead, he would be perfect substitute to throw on to see the game through. On right flank the incredibly quick and agile Alexandr Samedov will be a source of constant havoc, trying to beat markers with his quick feet and cross the ball in. He’s certainly one to be watched on counter attacks. Bystrov’s a more than capable deputy for Samedov. Up front the talismanic Kerzhakov, an agile and physical all round forward would have probably been assured a place had it not been for his poor run of form over the last couple of games. He will be strongly challenged by the exciting young 23 year old winger/striker Alexandr Kokorin for the centre-forward role in the team. Kokorin and Dzagoev are testaments to the bright future of Russian football and both will be keen to have a positive experience in Brazil.
Igor Akinfeev | It would hardly be a falsity to say Akinfeev is one of the top 20 goalkeepers on the planet. He carries the history of the USSR/Russia of producing the finest of goalkeepers, starting from the late great Lev Yashin. Akinfeev in qualifiying was magnificently reliable as always displaying his fine acrobatic shotstopping skills. He was cruelly overlooked for EURO 2012, and his country will desperately need him to step up to the plate especially against Belgium’s attacking talent in the group game.
Viktor Fayzullin | If I hadn’t made it abundantly clear enough, I will do so again; Perhaps no other player looks more under pressure and integral to the nation’s hopes at Brazil than Fayzullin. The 28 year old central midfielder will act as the lock picker in midfield trying to break down opposition defences by quick and direct passes. Shirikov’s last minute injury only serves to compound the burden on his shoulders.
Alexandr Kerzhakov | Once the most important playerS in the national setup, the pacey striker is an ever present goalscoring threat, poaching the slightest of opportunities. Holding up the ball and spreading play, he’s a vital component of their counterattacking threat. At 31, some say he’s past his peak but he still has a lot to offer to Capello’s side. His goal return over the last half season is disappointing at the best for a striker, but when playing confidently, on his day he has the ability to take apart almost any defence. His rotation or even partnership with Kokorin will be the source of goals for Russia through the tournament
TALENT RADAR KEY YOUNG PLAYERS
Alan Dzagoev | There is little that hasn’t been said about the genius of Alan Dzagoev. In EURO 2012 as a young 22 year old, the young attacking midfielder set the tournament on fire and was one of the brightest youngsters in Europe. But since then, his career has somewhat stalled. He hasn’t completely fulfilled his potential of becoming the player that he was expected to, and in some sense lost his way. Even in the national side, he has been far from first choice with Capello favouring more hardworking and defensive minded wingers willing to track back through the 90 minutes (Haven’t we heard this before this season?) However Capello managed to get the most out of Dzagoev in the second half of qualifying when his team needed him the most. If he does get the chance, you can expect him to put up a strong show and prove his “coming of age” in his first world Cup.
Read our Analysis of all teams here, and all other WC2014 related content here.
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