How They Got Here
The Russian journey to (relatively) nearby Poland and Ukraine should, by all rights, have been a relatively comfortable one. Only the Republic of Ireland looked like posing them any real threat in a fairly lightweight group, and so domestic expectations were high, especially given the national side's impressive outing at the last European Championships.
However, when a routine victory over Andorra in the opening match was followed by a defeat to Slovakia on home soil, the alarm bells began to ring. A controlled 3-2 win in Ireland and a gritty 1-0 over FYR Macedonia may have steadied the ship, but when the side travelled to Armenia and emerged only with an insipid goalless draw to show for their efforts, the media sharpened their knives for Dick Advocaat and his men – the manager was clueless, star player Andrei Arshavin was past it, and the team didn't care. With Ireland and Slovakia's campaigns picking up steam at the same time, there was a real worry that Russia might have to negotiate the play-off and worse, fail to qualify.
They needn't have worried. Although the Irish claimed a point in Moscow, Advocaat's men made light work of their remaining matches, helped by the fact that four of their final five games were to be played at home. Defeat to Slovakia was avenged in the return leg, and although formal qualification was not ensured until late on, a final round fixture against the minnows of Andorra all but sealed their passage to the tournament. One morale-boosting 6-0 thrashing later, and what threatened to be a tricky task was completed with the minimum of fuss.
Why They'll Win
When the draw for the group stages was made, Russian fans across the country were left licking their lips at their first round opponents. With favourites Germany and The Netherlands drawn together and holders Spain in the other half of the draw, a group which pits them against a weak Greek side, a Czech team which has fallen from the high standards of previous tournaments, and a Polish squad who would probably not have qualified without acting as hosts, has potentially removed one of the bigger obstacles in making progress into the latter stages.
Furthermore, a glance over Dick Advocaat's squad shows a distinct continuity between the current side and the team that shocked the continent in 2008, surged to the semi finals before coming undone at the hands of all-conquering Spain. The vast majority of that squad still play for the national team today, and many of them for the same club sides. That level of understanding and team-mate awareness is something which international football often fails to recreate, and could give the Russians a distinct advantage over nations drawing their squads from across the continent – something which all of their group opponents will be forced to do to a greater or lesser extent.
Why They Won't
However, the continuity comes with a downside as well as the obvious positives. Whilst the bulk of the squad did indeed turn into the surprise package of Euro 2008, it also failed to reach the World Cup in South Africa, finishing behind a strong German side in qualifying and then incredibly losing to Slovenia in the play-off. Defeat to Slovakia and some lethargic performances elsewhere in qualifying have been clear warnings – the squad is ageing, the stars are not shining as brightly, and Russia are no longer and unknown quantity as they were four years ago.
Increased exposure for the Russian league overseas, coupled with relative success in European competition for the likes of Zenit and CSKA, means that opposition managers and coaches will find it easier than ever to figure out the Russian gameplan. What's more, it will allow them to expose some of the team's more obvious weaknesses – star goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev comes in on the back of a long-term injury, and there is no-one of equal quality to act as backup should his problems flare up once more. In defence, CSKA are likely to provide at least half of the back line, and yet the Berezutsky twins and Sergei Ignashevich have been exposed on countless occasions this season both domestically and in Europe. Equally, captain Andrei Arshavin has never really replicated his Euro 2008 form since the tournament, and although in recent games back at Zenit he has looked more impressive, the magic does not appear to be back to full strength.
Finally, there is the brutality of the draw to worry about. Although Russia have probably the easiest group of the four, whether they come through it as winners or runners-up, they will face one of the qualifiers from Group B in the first knockout round. Given that Group B contains two of the favourites in Germany and The Netherlands, another top side in Portugal, and dark horses Denmark, it is hard to see how, barring a miracle, the Russians can make deeper inroads into the tournament.
We've Seen Before
Ask most people to name a Russian footballer, and although the majority might not be quite as overwhelming as a few years ago, the one name on most people's lips will be that of Andrei Arshavin, the diminutive forward who lit up the last European Championships with some truly sensational displays of attacking football, scoring the third in an extra-time win over the Dutch and extending his reputation beyond Russian territory.
His career path since then has been well documented – in January of 2009, Arshavin finally got the big-money move he craved, signed by Arsene Wenger and Arsenal for a club record fee. He soon became something of an enigma for the Gunners, often appearing to trundle through games only to produce something sublime from nothing. He netted four in one match against Liverpool to win the hearts of the Arsenal faithful, and all appeared well in the world of Arshavin.
However, his apparent lack of effort soon began to grate on the crowds at the Emirates Stadium, and Arshavin's place in the first team was no longer guaranteed. A regular candidate for substitution and, at times both deservedly and unfairly, often made a scapegoat for his sides's failings, he most recent campaign at Arsenal ended in reserve team appearances and cameo roles in the cups.
In stepped old club Zenit, and a loan spell which began in January has recently begun to pay dividends. Three goals in his last five games after a slow start has endeared himself once more to the St Petersburg crowds, and his link-up play between midfield and attack will prove vital if Russia are to make progress – the majority of the national side's starting midfield will come directly from Zenit, with striker Alexandr Kerzhakov also likely to feature up front. If they can replicate recent club form on a bigger stage, Dick Advocaat's men will have a far greater chance of success.
One of the few new faces in the Russian squad since 2008 is a man who has shaken off his youthful mantle with some fine performances, and established himself as one of the key players for both club and country. At CSKA Moscow he does not start every game due to the way they set up and the existence of Keisuke Honda, but he is a creative force for the Army Men, and is now widely regarded as one of Russia's finest playmakers. Alan Dzagoev is of course the man being discussed, the Beslan-born midfielder who has attracted the attention of some of Europe's biggest clubs, and who may well depart Moscow for new pastures in the wake of a poor season for his club side.
Dzagoev is by no means a newcomer to the international, making his debut as far back as October 2008, however in the most recent Russia squad, a friendly against Denmark at the end of February, he was one of just two players under the age of 25. The second, Dinamo's Alexandr Kokorin, is unlikely to make much of an impact on the tournament as fourth striker, such is the continuity continuously practised by Dick Advocaat and his backroom staff. To date, Dzagoev has made 18 appearances for the national squad, scoring four goals and becoming a permanent fixture as one of the attacking outlets in Advocaat's preferred formation.
His international debut almost ended in spectacular style, his effort late on against Germany bouncing back off the frame of the goal rather than nestling in the net for an equaliser, and since then Dzagoev has gone from strength to strength. All four of his international goals came during qualifying for Euro 2012, most notably the only goal of the game in Zilina, a long-range effort to seal a huge win over the Slovaks and all but seal Russia's progression to the tournament proper.
However, goals are not necessarily the primary reason for Dzagoev's inclusion in the squad despite a recent toe injury. It is instead his playmaking ability which has seen some of European football's biggest powers send scouts to watch the North Ossetian, and his assist record at domestic level speaks for itself, leading the Russian Premier League in that particular statistic. His vision and eye for a pass, combined with the finishing and composure of Kerzhakov up front will be a lethal combination if both are fully fit and on form for the Russians.
How They Will Play
Anybody who has watched Russian champions Zenit will be familiar with the way Russia line up at the European Championships – boss Dick Advocaat managed the champions to their first Russian title in 2007 as well as UEFA Cup success the following season, and he has transferred his preferred methods to the national squad along with many of the players who came under his control in St Petersburg.
In essence the formation is a version of the 4-3-3/4-5-1 hybrid which has become increasingly popular around Europe recently, largely due to its ability to involve the wide players in both attacking and defensive phases of the game. Like many teams, Russia utilise attacking full backs to great effect – Anzhi's Yuri Zhirkov and Zenit's Alexandr Anyukov will play on the left and right respectively, stretching the opposition midfield and creating space for their own central trio to operate in.
This is where Russia will win or lose most of their matches, if the centre back pairing can be relied on to retain concentration and composure for the full 90 minutes. The triangle of destroyer, passer and box-to-box midfielder are not filled individually, but rather by a combination of players. At Zenit, this triangle consists of Igor Denisov, Konstantin Zyryanov and Roman Shirokov, but with Zyryanov now 34 he is no longer guaranteed to play every game. Whilst Shirokov is often the most advanced of the three, as seen particularly in this season's Champions League, it is a fluid triangle, able to break up attacks and launch their own in equal measure, each player capable of filling the roles of his team-mates if circumstances dictate it. Such flexibility is a great strength, and could prove the difference in tight encounters.
For the lone striker role, which for Russia incorporates both predatory poaching and hold-up play, there are a wealth of options – Premier League top scorer Kerzhakov is the favourite the start with his Zenit team-mates, but the likes of Pavel Pogrebnyak and Roman Pavlyuchenko are by no means poor alternatives. Should Advocaat decide to go with two up front, he has the personnel to make it work.
The real selection problem could come behind the striker, with Advocaat preferring attacking midfielders to out-and-out wingers, allowing the two to drift between the lines and rely on the full backs for width. Alan Dzagoev is almost certain for one of the spots, and the Russian public would love to see Andrei Arshavin back in form and occupying the other starting berth, further forward and in direct support of the lone striker. However, a wider option is available in the form of the returning Marat Izmailov, so Advocaat has plenty of options open to him. Whilst it is unlikely that we will see Russia switch to a traditional 4-4-2, they do have the ability to stretch the play on one flank, creating room infield for their playmaker to lurk and pick his passes. Wing backs are another option open but unlikely, and the fine-tuning of tactics could well be crucial to Russia's hopes, especially when they go across the bigger teams after the group stage. Anything less than perfectly executed plan, and they'll find themselves on the plane home.
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You can read more from Rob at the excellent More Than Arshavin.