Sathesh Alagappan –
Russia and England will meet for their crucial Euro 2016 Group B clash on Saturday. Russian manager, Leonid Slutsky, will know that getting a result against England could be pivotal for his country’s hopes of advancing in the tournament. Russia do have pedigree against the English, however. In qualifying for Euro 2008, they pulled off a spectacular victory that sent shockwaves throughout English football.
Background to the Game
After Russia’s failure to qualify for the 2006 World Cup, the Russian Football Union had appointed Guus Hiddink as national team manager. The Dutchman’s stock was high, having led South Korea to a World Cup semi-final in 2002, and Australia to a respectable round of 16 finish at the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
Hiddink was confronted with a difficult qualifying group for Euro 2008. The top seeds, England, were packed with members of what was often perceived as a golden generation in England, such as Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney and Frank Lampard. The surprise package of the group was Croatia. Managed by the talented and enthusiastic Slaven Bilić, Croatia’s young squad played an exciting brand of attacking football.
Bilić’s side convincingly defeated England 2-0 in Zagreb. Meanwhile, Russia’s campaign had been stuttering. Despite two credible draws against Croatia, they suffered a 3-0 defeat away to England, and a dour 0-0 draw against Israel.
This left England and Russia vying for the second qualification spot. Russia vs England in Moscow would therefore prove crucial.
Russia vs England – The Sbornaya Triumph at the Luzhniki Stadium
There was a feeling that England were already up against it when they arrived in Moscow for the clash. The players and manager, Steve McClaren, were subject to scathing attacks from the English media in response to their poor performances. They were also missing their captain, John Terry, because of an injury.
Russia’s home advantage was also cited as a factor. The crowd at the Luzhniki Stadium is notoriously vociferous and hostile to opponents. Furthermore, the ground used an artificial pitch, which was something alien to most of the English players. Sections of the English press insisted on making this a major point of controversy.
England seemed unperturbed by the pitch in the first half of the match. Wayne Rooney scored a wonderful goal in the 29th minute of the match, by guiding a glorious volley into the net to put England 1-0 up. As it stood, England would be going through via the second place qualification spot, whilst Russia would be eliminated.
Despite some flashes of Russian attacking menace, England maintained their lead and looked comfortable going into half time.
Indeed, England should scored at the beginning of the second half, as Steven Gerrard found himself unmarked with the goal at his mercy, only to put his effort wide. The second goal would have all but secured a victory for England. England full back Micah Richards then missed a glaring chance, and was unable to tap in a cross inches from the goal.
Russia had ridden their luck, but the game would turn on its head with the arrival of then Spartak Moscow forward Roman Pavluchenko from the substitutes bench. Rooney rashly brought down midfielder Konstantin Zyryanov in the penalty area. Pavluchenko stepped up and coolly dispatched the penalty, bringing the teams level.
Just four minutes later, England goalkeeper Paul Robinson weakly parried a shot from Aleksei Berezutski. Pavluchenko latched onto the ball, and slotted in Russia’s winner, which sent the Luzhniki Stadium into ecstasy.
Russia now had qualification in their hands. England knew that a loss would cause a near fatal blow to their hopes, and they desperately pushed forward for the remainder of the match. Ultimately, though, the Russian defence stood firm.
The result meant that Russia only needed to defeat Israel in order to qualify. It seemed that Hiddink had pulled off another one of his underdog masterstrokes. For England, a sense of shock set in, followed by vicious reprisals from the media.
What happened next?
Russia then stumbled at the next hurdle and gave the initiative back to England. Playing away at Israel, Russia conceded a goal in stoppage time to lose 2-1. The result was a major blow, and meant England only needed to avoid defeat in their last match against Croatia in order to nab the second qualifying spot.
As was characteristic of the fluctuating qualifying group, England fell to a 3-2 defeat, which prompted wild celebrations in Andorra, where Russia had just won their final game.
Despite the close-run nature of their qualification, Russia went on to enjoy their best tournament of the post-Soviet era. The likes of Arshavin and Pavluchenko helped Russia become the dark horses at the European Championships in Austria and Switzerland, when they brushed aside Holland 3-1 before exiting in the semi-final stage against the eventual winners, Spain.
In 2008, the victory over England was the impetus. Slutsky and co. will be hoping to emulate their predecessors in Marseille on Saturday.
Sathesh Alagappan’s two passions are football and history. He studied history at the University of Southampton, where he took a particular interest in Soviet history. He went on to work in the football industry as a researcher. Sathesh is now a football writer based in London, and he enjoys writing about Soviet and Russian football culture. Follow Sathesh on Twitter @sathesh1992.