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The Confederations Cup in Russia marks the start of the countdown to the country’s World Cup in 2018. Widely seen a dress rehearsal for the real thing, allowing the host nation to fine tune its organisation and logistical operations, it also provides an opportunity for the Russian players to prove to the home fans that they can make their mark on the biggest stage.
Not much has gone right for the Russian national team since the country was controversially awarded hosting rights to the 2018 World Cup by FIFA back in 2010. That victory went somewhat under the radar thanks to the even more controversial decision to hand 2022 hosting duties to Qatar. At the time, the Russian team was at something of a crossroads.
Euro 2008 success did not last
In Euro 2008 Guus Hiddink’s side won the hearts of neutrals as they reached the semi-finals, inspired by the impish genius of Andrei Arshavin. That talented team had the world at its feet. Rather than building on that surprise success, though, they regressed.
Russia failed to reach the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Hiddink’s Dutch compatriot Dick Advocaat replaced him after that failure. He improved results enough to lead them to Euro 2012, but they then failed to make it past the group stage, despite the fine form of midfielder Alan Dzagoev.
Fabio Capello was next. The Italian with the big reputation – and even bigger contract – failed to bring about a Russian football revolution. They qualified impressively to the 2014 World Cup (ahead of Portugal) but made little to no impact in Brazil. Russia fell at the first hurdle. They flew home after the group stage with just two goals to their name and not a single win.
The Italian limped on, despite the reservations of many fans. He eventually lost his job after a defeat to Austria in the qualifiers for the 2016 Euros. CSKA boss Leonid Slutsky took the reigns – in tandem with his club job – but the Euros was a disaster. Amid widely condemned crowd trouble off the pitch, Russia earned just one point on it and slinked home having finished bottom of their group.
And so, Russia rightly approach the upcoming World Cup with trepidation. From hoping to make a real impact on the world stage, now they just hope to avoid an embarrassment.
That said, the official target for 2018 is to reach the semi-finals. It’s quite the target for Slutsky’s replacement Stanislav Cherchesov. The former goalkeeper has had a number of largely short-term managerial gigs, most recently at Legia Warsaw where he won the double in the 2015/16 season. He will have doubts to overcome, but at least he has not shied away from making big decisions.
Cherchesov rings the changes
Most of the stars of that 2008 squad are long gone, but the few that remain available have been jettisoned. The seemingly eternal Sergei Ignashevich has retired from international duty. Gone, too, are Vasily Berezutsky and the difficult Igor Denisov. The problem for Cherchesov is a dearth of young Russian talent to replace the ageing players.
A potential future star could be the currently injured 23-year-old Spartak Moscow midfielder Roman Zobnin. Beyond him pickings look slim. Alexei Miranchuk (who we picked as one to watch last year, along with Zobnin) is in the Confederations Cup squad, but is likely to have to make an impact from the bench.
Then there’s 21-year-old midfielder Alexsandr Golovin, but it doesn’t look as though there’s a golden generation waiting to be unearthed. Their biggest threat to defences is Fedor Smolov, the striker who is already 27.
Fedor Smolov: Scored more goals (18) than any other player in the Russian Premier League last season pic.twitter.com/AjN9FwCN5u
— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) June 17, 2017
FIFA rankings may be mocked by many, but there’s a reason that Russia sit 63rd, behind the likes of Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Israel. Officially speaking this is the worst Russian team on record. After harbouring such high hopes for their home World Cup, many in Russia will wonder what has gone wrong since the heady days of 2008.
People have suggested plenty of ideas in the interim. They included the oddball idea of having the national team play in the Russian Premier League itself, while Russian president Vladimir Putin has suggested there are too many foreign players playing in the domestic league. But with the clock ticking down to the World Cup, Cherchesov will hope to find a solution during this tournament.
A 2-0 win against New Zealand is a start, but a workaday win over lacklustre opponents won’t excite anyone. Russia need to find a style and identity like they had in that thrilling summer of 2008. In 2018, they won’t abide yet another group stage exit.
Main image credit: steodoyne via Flickr