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Russia – Group A
Coach: Dick Advocaat (Holland)
Goalkeepers: Igor Akinfeev (CSKA Moscow), Vyacheslav Malafeev (Zenit St Petersburg), Anton Shunin (Dinamo Moscow).
Defenders: Aleksandr Anyukov (Zenit St Petersburg), Aleksei Berezutski (CSKA Moscow), Sergei Ignashevich (CSKA Moscow), Vladimir Granat (Dinamo Moscow), Yuri Zhirkov (Anzhi Makhachkala), Dmitri Kombarov (Spartak Moscow), Roman Sharonov (Rubin Kazan), Kirill Nababkin (CSKA Moscow).
Midfielders: Igor Denisov (Zenit St Petersburg), Konstantin Zyryanov (Zenit St Petersburg), Roman Shirokov (Zenit St Petersburg), Denis Glushakov (Lokomotiv Moscow), Igor Semshov (Dinamo Moscow), Marat Izmailov (Sporting Lisbon), Alan Dzagoev (CSKA Moscow).
Forwards: Andrey Arshavin (Zenit St Petersburg), Aleksandr Kerzhakov (Zenit St Petersburg), Aleksandr Kokorin (Dinamo Moscow), Roman Pavlyuchenko (Lokomotiv Moscow), Pavel Pogrebnyak (Fulham).
Likely formation: 4-1-4-1
Prediction: Last 8.
Take a number of prominent footballers coming from the leading national clubs, give them an ambitious and experienced Dutch head coach and put them in a relatively easy group stage. It seems to read about the Russia national team who surprisingly – well, for those who think football is an exact science – reached the European Championship semi-finals four years ago. Honestly speaking, the present squad may not be that far from repeating that achievement, doubtless the greatest one for Russian football since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
When the football federation had to appoint the man called to take the reigns of Guus Hiddink, Dick Advocaat was probably the most appropriate name displayed on the list. The former Ranger manager has many features to share with his predecessor, starting from citizenship and mothertongue. Indeed, Advocaat was already the replacement of Hiddink when the South Koreans decided to hire him for their national team after the extraordinary World Cup campaign in 2002. And he successfully coached Zenit St Petersburg as well as many players of current national side.
The nucleus of the team looks the same as four years ago, this being an added value for the hopes of progressing into the tournament. 26-year-old Igor’ Akinfeev is still the first choice for the role of goalkeeper, although he may miss the opening match against Czech Republic due to a knee injury. The rearguard will be a back four, with Alekseij Berezuckij and veteran Sergej Ignaševič to protect the goalie and ex-Chelsea Jurij Žirkov and Aleksandr Anjukov on the wings.
Possibly, the innovation Advocaat gave in comparison with his fellow countryman lies in the halfway line. Zenit St Petersburg’s defensive midfielder Igor’ Denisov is the conjunction between the rearguard and the four deep-lying forwards who will play just behind the main striker. The 27-year-old player was called by Hiddink, too, four years ago but he resoundingly refused to take part in the Euros.
As long as the team is provided with a solid defence, the four offensive midfielders are let to be creative. 34-year-old Konstantin Zyrjanov, Zenit’s Roman Širokov and ex-Arsenal Andrej Aršavin are the guarantee, whereas young Alan Dzagoev epitomises the new generation of talents. It was him to score the winning goal in the away match against Slovakia, which gave Russia the direct qualification for the Euros, it is him who may be the ace in the hole for Advocaat for this Euro campaign.
Regarding the centre-forward, the Dutchman has always alternated Roman Pavljučenko, back to his homeland after four anything-but-amazing years spent playing for Tottenham Hotspurs, and Pavel Pogrebnjak, who on the contrary became the quickest footballer to reach five goals in Premier League history whilst playing for Fulham. However, the trouncing 3-0 victory in the friendly match against Italy proved that the best solution for the regular lineup would be Aleksandr Keržakov, who has scored 23 goals in 32 matches this season with Zenit St Petersburg.
Is this enough to repeat the 2008 exploit? At the cost of being unfair, Advocaat is a wily old fox but he certainly lacks the charisma of Hiddink. Moreover, physical strength and shortage of spares might turn to be a weakness. On the other hand, Advocaat can rely upon a team where players know well each other – almost all of them come from the Russian league and from two main sides, Zenit St Petersburg and CSKA Moscow – and, in certain cases, also the manager himself.
Passing through the group stage appears to be an easy task. If Russia manage to reach the round of 8, they might hypotetically encounter the Netherlands – just like in 2008. And if they hypotetically move forward, the tournament schedule says they might face Spain. Just like in 2008.