Andrew Flint –
As the host nation, Russia head into their first international tournament on home soil with mixed fortunes; injuries have shorn them of some of their most dangerous players, but the performance to put an admittedly under-strength Hungary side to the sword saw an unexpected upturn in form. Stanislav Cherchesov has come under criticism for not showing his hand clearly enough with a little over a year till the greatest show on earth rolls into town. But the ruthlessness with which he has dispensed with the eternal Sergey Ignashevich and the Berezutsky twins, discarded the troublesome Igor Denisov, and held the presence of mind to switch to a universally adopted three-man defence is slowly starting to sink in.
Roman Zobnin has been ruled out for at least six months with an Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) injury picked up in Budapest on Monday, which has scuppered his hopes of both nailing down his place in Sbornaya’s midfield and sealing a lucrative move abroad – for now. Schalke and Roma have been said to be interested in the Spartak youngster, but more immediately his absence will be sorely felt this summer. Alan Dzagoev is once again on the treatment table, which leaves a golden opportunity for Alexander Golovin and Alexey Miranchuk to earn valuable game time.
The loss of Artyom Dzyuba will be less of a blow, as Alexander Bukharov’s display in the 3-0 friendly win over the Magyars suggested. With Fyodor Smolov fresh from once again finishing as the Russian Football Premier League’s top goalscorer – as well as the adrenalin of scoring a sensational individual effort – and Dmitry Poloz having opened his international account, there are plenty of options for Cherchesov to opt for up front. It is most likely that he will go for two strikers, and it appears his inclination is towards a more healthy, physical partner for Smolov, meaning Bukharov is in pole position to start. Dzyuba’s absence would have been the ideal time to play Smolov as a lone striker, or alongside the livewire Poloz, if he had any intention of using them in this way, but he didn’t.
The defence is the least convincing area of the team at the moment. Without the Berezutskys and Ignashevich, there is very little experience in the backline – of the current squad who can play centrally, Fyodor Kudryashov has the most caps with seven. With Viktor Vasin and Ilya Kutepov both showing lapses of concentration in recent performances for club and country, Roman Neustadter revealing he doesn’t feel comfortable in the national team set-up and Ruslan Kambolov having played almost all his football this season in midfield, confidence is low here. Even Georgi Dzhikia took a knock in Hungary and had to leave the pitch, but he has been cleared fit for the Confederations Cup itself.
One essential part of the 3-5-2 system Cherchesov has decided to adopt – similar to how most RFPL sides are now playing – is the wide areas. In this department, he has a reasonably strong hand; Alexander Samedov was tasked with the role earlier this week while Igor Smolnikov, who has had to recover from a lengthy injury, sat on the bench, while the vast experience of Yuri Zhirkov and Dmitry Kombarov cover the left side. Mario Fernandes will have to wait to finally make his competitive debut after being granted Russian citizenship as he undergoes a nose operation, but his return will offer plenty of attacking threat down the flanks.
One thing Cherchesov cannot be accused of is sitting idle. He has not shied away from big decisions and has communicated with his preliminary squad openly to avoid potential resentment or conflict arising. “The coach is always immersed in his job,” Dzhikia told Izvestia newspaper “and he does not have time to say us personal anecdotes. When there is a spare moment, he explains precise game situations to us.” One thing he must be prepared for is the pressures of the world’s best teams on his doorstep.
Russia – Opponents
The opening match of the tournament is by far the easiest fixture for Russia, as they face OFC champions New Zealand in St Petersburg on 17 June. They then have to travel to the capital where they will come up against Cristiano Ronaldo’s European champions Portugal at Spartak Stadium (as the Otkritie Arena will temporarily be known to satisfy FIFA sponsorship regulations) in arguably the sternest test of the group stage. Finally, they fly out east to Kazan where they will take on CONCACAF champions Mexico. With goal difference, the first deciding factor for teams finishing level on points, the New Zealand game could turn out to be crucial to their hope of progression, and that itself would most likely depend upon earning a result against Mexico.
Russia – What To Expect
If they can make their way out of the group, it should be deemed a successful campaign; the problem is that they must somehow regroup defensively to keep the European champions and a resurgent Mexico at bay. However, what may well work in their favour is the fact that they will have played fewer games than their rivals, while in contrast to the Latin opponents, this, in fact, will be a step up from their previous year of international matches. Mexico have a more prestigious tournament – the CONCACAF Gold Cup – that starts just five days after the Confederations Cup final on 2 July, while Portugal will be under pressure from their players’ clubs to restrict the game time of some of their stars. The public and media are generally speaking quite sanguine about the prospect of actually lifting the trophy, but don’t be surprised to see the hosts reach the semi-finals.
Russia – Squad
Goalkeepers: Igor Akinfeev (CSKA Moscow), Vladimir Gabulov (Arsenal Tula), Guilherme (Lokomotiv Moscow)
Defenders: Georgy Dzhikiya (Spartak Moscow), Fyodor Kudryashov (FC Rostov), Ilya Kutepov (Spartak Moscow), Roman Shishkin (FC Krasnodar), Igor Smolnikov (Zenit St. Petersburg), Viktor Vasin (CSKA Moscow), Dmitry Kombarov (Spartak Moscow)
Midfielders: Yuri Gazinsky (FC Krasnodar), Denis Glushakov (Spartak Moscow), Alexander Golovin (CSKA Moscow), Alexei Miranchuk (Lokomotiv Moscow), Alexander Samedov (Spartak Moscow), Dmitry Tarasov (Lokomotiv Moscow), Alexander Yerokhin (FC Rostov), Yuri Zhirkov (Zenit St. Petersburg), Ruslan Kambolov (Rubin Kazan)
Forwards: Alexander Bukharov (FC Rostov), Maxim Kannunikov (Rubin Kazan), Dmitry Poloz (FC Rostov), Fyodor Smolov (FC Krasnodar)
Andrew Flint is an English freelance football writer living in Tyumen, Western Siberia, with his wife and two daughters. He has featured on These Football Times, Russian Football News, Four Four Two and Sovetski Sport, mostly focusing on full-length articles about derbies, youth development and the game in Russia. Due to his love for FC Tyumen, he is particularly interested in lower league Russian football and is looking to establish himself in time for the 2018 World Cup. Follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewMijFlint.