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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 HiddinkâÂÂs fellow Dutchman Dick Advocaat, thereâÂÂs been an overall impression of a team treading water and growing old together.

After failing to make the 2010 World Cup, RussiaâÂÂs qualification for the Euros this time was achieved in efficient but unspectacular fashion. That they edged out the Republic â¨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 â¨of the back four â Sergei Ignashevich and Aleksei Berezutski â â¨have been playing together for club (CSKA Moscow) and country for the best part of â¨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, â¨not least because Arshavin â still the creative fulcrum â 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. ItâÂÂs hardly a glowing vindication of the Russian game, but Advocaat sees a silver lining: âÂÂI think ArshavinâÂÂs return â¨to Zenit will help the national team. HeâÂÂll â¨get more match practice. The same goes â¨for Bilyaletdinov and Pavlyuchenko. All of â¨these players were not getting regular â¨games in the first half of the season, but â¨now they should be playing every week.âÂÂ

Some sections of the Russian media have called time on ArshavinâÂÂs 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 â¨is still a relative rookie. As former Russian captain Yegor Titov notes, ArshavinâÂÂs ability to rediscover his mojo remains key: âÂÂDo we need Arshavin? Definitely. I keep reading things like, âÂÂWhy did he return? What do we need him for?â But Arshavin is the only Russian player of his generation who has shone in Europe.âÂÂ

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 â¨6-0 home thrashing of Andorra, and Russia found the net just 11 times in 9 qualifiers. AdvocaatâÂÂs insistence on sticking with â¨a big targetman â either Pavlyuchenko or Pavel Pogrebnyak â 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 RussiaâÂÂs two most successful clubs, CSKA â¨and Zenit, and the core have been together â¨in the national fold for at least six years. Playing in neighbouring Poland and â¨Ukraine should boost support for a team â¨who are generally poor travellers.

Physical strength and stamina are â¨a recognised weak spot â a shortcoming â¨that Advocaat has just sought to address â¨by recruiting former Wales coach Raymond Verheijen. But even he wonâÂÂt be able to do much about the fact that the squad will be â¨one of the shortest in height at Euro 2012. â¨A further possible weakness of AdvocaatâÂÂs approach is his dislike of substitutions â potential impact players such as Vladimir Bystrov, Aleksandr Samedov and Denis Glushakov remain largely untested â 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.

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

"In the qualifiers Russia showed what âÂÂfalse dominanceâÂÂ: 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 HiddinkâÂÂs Russia, but which has been rarely sighted under his successor. He continues to waver between Pavlyuchenko and Pogrebnyak to spearhead the attack â even if the best centre-forward â¨in Russia at the moment is Kerzhakov.âÂÂ

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 â¨as an attacking midfielder. Having played three full seasons â¨in the Russian Premier League and â¨the Champions League, Dzagoev is â¨no stranger to pressure and the big stage. Although he injured his toe in March, heâÂÂs 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 â¨on, Advocaat will be looking to get young playmaker Dzagoev on the ball as much â¨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

...and there's more: try Back of the Net's satirical previews