Russians prepare to bare teeth
Dick Advocaat's team of underachievers will have a point to prove at the Aviva Stadium, writes Seán Ryan
IT'S a case of two contrasting football worlds colliding at the Aviva Stadium on Friday. Standing firm on home soil are perennial overachievers, the Republic of Ireland, while zooming in from one of the biggest countries in Europe are those perennial underachievers, Russia.
In all its history of international football, Russia -- even with the added advantage of the Soviet Union satellites -- has only managed to win one major championship: the European Nations Cup in 1960. Ireland's quarter-final placing in the 1990 World Cup compares more than favourably with that achievement.
Perhaps it is something to do with its long, cold winter, which disrupts its football season, but a paltry two European club titles -- both in the UEFA Cup -- also seems a poor return from the footballers of Russia.
Significantly, both club triumphs occurred in the past five years -- CSKA Moscow winning in 2005, followed by Zenit St Petersburg in 2008 -- and this prompted thoughts of a Russian revival. All seemed to be coming together when they produced a strong showing at the Euro 2008 finals, going out to eventual winners Spain in the semi-finals.
However, a 2010 World Cup campaign that saw them failing to qualify when they lost a play-off to Slovenia means that the Russian bear's claws are not as sharp as had been assumed. In Euro 2008, they had the youngest team in the finals, and it was naturally expected that they would go on to great things, but it hasn't happened.
What is worse, from a Russian perspective, is that their elimination came at the hands of a tiny nation which, up to recently, had been subsumed into the Soviet Union. As their chess masters might have put it, it was like the knight trumping the queen: seldom seen but wonderful -- but not at your own expense.
That result saw an end to Guus Hiddink's time in charge, and led to the arrival of Dick Advocaat, former manager of the year from his time with Zenit St Petersburg, where he won the League and the UEFA Cup. But Advocaat barely had time to stretch his toes under his desk at the Federation's headquarters and renew acquaintance with his former Zenit players, when a second major upset occurred.
Once again it was at the hands of a small nation, formerly under Soviet influence. And this time they had the audacity to deliver it in Moscow. Slovakia's 1-0 win last month must have shaken Russian confidence to the core.
They say sport and politics shouldn't mix, but they do, and here's a word of warning for the Russians -- two more of your former satellites, Armenia and Macedonia, are waiting to test their mettle against their former masters in this intriguing Group B.
At the start of the campaign, looking down from their lofty first and second seedings, Russia and Slovakia probably selected the Republic of Ireland as the king-makers in the group. Whichever of us can gain most points from Ireland will probably win the group, was more than likely their assessment, secure in their belief that they would both hoover up all the points they needed from the lesser teams.
Slovakia's win in Moscow puts a different complexion on matters. Now the Russians need to get back on their horse quickly and show they haven't lost their nerve. This is, firstly, a game they can't afford to lose, but also one they would dearly like to win.
Failure in Dublin could have repercussions for Advocaat and, if that's the case, it wouldn't be the first time the Irish have had a bearing on his career. His reign as kingpin at Rangers was ended by Martin O'Neill's arrival at Celtic, and the success of Mick McCarthy's team in qualifying for the 2002 World Cup cost Louis van Gaal his job and led to Advocaat's return as Dutch boss.
In his first term at the helm of Dutch football in the early 1990s, he was criticised early on for his defensive tactics, and he had a major falling-out with Ruud Gullit (shades of Jack Charlton and David O'Leary), which led to Gullit's retirement. It didn't prevent them from qualifying for the '94 World Cup, where they ended Ireland's interest in the boiling heat of Orlando, before going out to eventual winners Brazil.
Dutch football is renowned for its propensity to hit the self-destruct button, but if that is part of Advocaat's CV, it's well hidden, apart from that spat with Gullit. After a modest playing career, he has enjoyed a successful -- and hugely well-paid -- career as a coach. In that respect, he is a classic case, for average players tend to know better what is required when they take to coaching than master footballers who did it all by instinct.
Advocaat requires good technique and a strong physical presence from his players -- and there is plenty of both in his squad -- but the tactics, which should bring out the best in Euro 2008 stars like Andrei Arshavin, Yuri Zhirkov and Roman Pavlyuchenko, have yet to click.
Significantly, all three are playing in England and have been enjoying mixed fortunes. An upturn in club form might be needed before Advocaat gets the best from his three London-based stars.
To help Arshavin and Stuttgart's Pavel Pogrebnyak up front, Advocaat has recalled his former Zenit striker Alexander Kerzhakov at the expense of former boy wonder Dimitri Sychev. This added firepower suggests that Advocaat has set his sights on a win in the Aviva.
If that is to be the case, he's fortunate to have Igor Akinfeev minding the house at the other end. No less an expert on goalkeepers than Alex Ferguson (Schmeichel, Van der Sar) doesn't spare his praise when it comes to the CSKA Moscow net-minder. "He's a fantastic goalkeeper, athletic with a powerful build and his distribution is good," is Fergie's verdict. And, as he's only 24, Fergie might yet be tracking him as a replacement for the evergreen Van der Sar.
So, if Advocaat decides to attack, this match could be decided on how well the successor to the great Lev Yachin copes with the inevitable Irish breakaways.
Overachievers v underachievers . . . it should be some night at the Aviva.