Euro 2012 preview: Russia

Russia were among the more impressive performers in Austria and Switzerland four years ago, but can they repeat the trick? Dan Brennan casts an eye over Dick Advocaat's side

Arshavin and Pavlyuchenko will look to prove 2008 wasn't a one-off

Four years ago, perennial underachievers Russia took Euro 2008 by storm, with Guus Hiddink masterminding a Slavic take on total football that cast Andrey Arshavin in the Cruyff role. Hopes that their exciting run to the semi-finals would spark a new golden era have not materialised. Instead, under Hiddink’s fellow Dutchman Dick Advocaat, there’s been an overall impression of a team treading water and growing old together.

After failing to make the 2010 World Cup, Russia’s qualification for the Euros this time was achieved in efficient but unspectacular fashion. That they edged out the Republic 
of Ireland to top Group B owed more to the solidity of a defensive unit that conceded just four goals in 10 matches than the free-spirited attacking displays that lit up Euro 2008.

The parsimony of that rearguard is a major asset, and hardly surprising given that two 
of the back four – Sergei Ignashevich and Aleksei Berezutski – 
have been playing together for club (CSKA Moscow) and country for the best part of 
a decade. With another seasoned operator, 34-year-old Konstantin Zyryanov, in midfield, the team is built on strong foundations.

Further up the pitch, the cracks appear, 
not least because Arshavin – still the creative fulcrum – seems to have lost his way. Locked out at Arsenal, the 30-year-old has sought solace and regular playing time in the bosom of his alma mater, Zenit St Petersburg. His national team-mates Yuri Zhirkov, Roman Pavlyuchenko and Dimitar Bilyaletdinov (who was omitted from Advocaat's final 23-man squad) also ended up as fringe players in England and have been shipped home. It’s hardly a glowing vindication of the Russian game, but Advocaat sees a silver lining: “I think Arshavin’s return 
to Zenit will help the national team. He’ll 
get more match practice. The same goes 
for Bilyaletdinov and Pavlyuchenko. All of 
these players were not getting regular 
games in the first half of the season, but 
now they should be playing every week.”

Some sections of the Russian media have called time on Arshavin’s role as national talisman altogether, talking up the prospects of young pretender Alan Dzagoev. The CSKA Moscow playmaker is the one truly exciting talent to emerge during the last cycle, but 
is still a relative rookie. As former Russian captain Yegor Titov notes, Arshavin’s ability to rediscover his mojo remains key: “Do we need Arshavin? Definitely. I keep reading things like, ‘Why did he return? What do we need him for?’ But Arshavin is the only Russian player of his generation who has shone in Europe.”

Despite flopping at Arsenal, Arshavin is still a key figure for his country

Lesson from qualifying
Goals are hard to come by. Take away the 
6-0 home thrashing of Andorra, and Russia found the net just 11 times in 9 qualifiers. Advocaat’s insistence on sticking with 
a big targetman – either Pavlyuchenko or Pavel Pogrebnyak – has limitations. On the rare occasions when he has cut loose and opted for a fluid 4-3-3, with Dzagoev and Arshavin swapping positions on either side of Aleksandr Kerzhakov, they have looked closer to the spirit of 2008.

This is an experienced squad that has matured tactically under Dutch guidance. Most of the players are drawn from Russia’s two most successful clubs, CSKA 
and Zenit, and the core have been together 
in the national fold for at least six years. Playing in neighbouring Poland and 
Ukraine should boost support for a team 
who are generally poor travellers.

Physical strength and stamina are 
a recognised weak spot – a shortcoming 
that Advocaat has just sought to address 
by recruiting former Wales coach Raymond Verheijen. But even he won’t be able to do much about the fact that the squad will be 
one of the shortest in height at Euro 2012. 
A further possible weakness of Advocaat’s approach is his dislike of substitutions – potential impact players such as Vladimir Bystrov, Aleksandr Samedov and Denis Glushakov remain largely untested – reducing his ability to change games. There is no plan B.

Did you know…?
Former Chelsea man Yuri Zhirkov is an avid collector of World War II memorabilia.

Expert’s view
Ivan Kalashnikov, deputy editor,
“Just as four years ago, expectations are 
pretty low – but the Euro 2008 team turned 
out to be arguably the best we’ve ever produced. The nucleus of that squad 
remains the same, so they have continuity 
and experience on their side. On the 
flip side, this is an ageing team, indicative 
of a lack of new talent being produced.

"In the qualifiers Russia showed what ‘false dominance’: keeping possession but with no cutting edge. The high point of the qualifying campaign was the 3-2 win away to Ireland, which saw Kerzhakov, Arshavin and Dzagoev swapping positions in a fast, fluid attack that was the trademark of Hiddink’s Russia, but which has been rarely sighted under his successor. He continues to waver between Pavlyuchenko and Pogrebnyak to spearhead the attack – even if the best centre-forward 
in Russia at the moment is Kerzhakov.”

Resurgent stars should sneak them through.

Dzagoev has already impressed domestically and in the Champions League

Key player
Alan Dzagoev

The 21-year-old CSKA Moscow man is an exciting prospect 
as an attacking midfielder. Having played three full seasons 
in the Russian Premier League and 
the Champions League, Dzagoev is 
no stranger to pressure and the big stage. Although he injured his toe in March, he’s expected to be fit in time for the opener. If he hits form this summer, he might just inspire Russia in a similar way to Arshavin in 2008.

The manager
Dick Advocaat

Taking the reigns from Guus Hiddink in May 2010, 64-year-old Advocaat lost his first home qualifier to Slovakia, but the former Holland and Rangers manager, who won the 2008 UEFA Cup with Zenit St Petersburg, found the winning formula, qualifying for Euro 2012 as group winners, staying unbeaten for the remaining qualifying games.

How they play
The strength of this Russian side comes right down the centre of the pitch. With a solid central defence to build 
on, Advocaat will be looking to get young playmaker Dzagoev on the ball as much 
as possible, ideally in the hole behind the striker. With Dzagoev and Arshavin feeding the likes of Pavlyuchencko, Pogrebnyak and Kerzhakov upfront, the Russians could prove a handful for their three rivals in Group A.

Group fixtures
June 8, Czech Republic (Wroclaw, 7.45pm)
June 12, Poland (Warsaw, 7.45pm)
June 16, Greece (Warsaw, 7.45pm)

Euro record (including as USSR/CIS)
1960 Winners
1964 Runners-up
1968 Semi-finals
1972 Runners-up
1976 DNQ
1980 DNQ
1984 DNQ
1988 Runners-up
1992 First round
1996 First round
2000 DNQ
2004 First round
2008 Semi-finals

Russia are 20/1 to win Euro 2012, while Andrei Arshavin to finish as top scorer with Russia winning the tournament is 400/1.
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More details

Grp A:
Poland • Russia • Greece • Czech Republic
Grp B:
Netherlands • Germany • Portugal • Denmark
Grp C:
Spain • Italy • Croatia • Republic of Ireland
Grp D:
Ukraine • England • France • Sweden

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