Friday 20 April 2018

Soft section suggests a safe group passage

Former Chelsea star Yuri Zhirkov is one of the main men in Dick Advocaat's Russia squad
Former Chelsea star Yuri Zhirkov is one of the main men in Dick Advocaat's Russia squad

TALK of the town four years ago, Euro 2008 semi-finalists Russia are back for another crack and they will once again carry the tag of tournament dark horses.

Spain eventually ended the run in a one-sided last-four contest in Austria but that Russian squad was one of the youngest in the competition and that experience should serve them well in Poland and Ukraine.

Guus Hiddink left after failing to take the team to the 2010 World Cup but replacement Dick Advocaat has carried on the work of his fellow Dutchman and many of the team from four years ago remain.

There was understandable frustration that they will play their group games in Poland rather than the neighbouring Ukraine but that was more than made up for with such a soft section.

The Poles, Czech Republic and Greece are a long way short of being among Europe's top teams and anything other than the quarter-finals would be a huge disappointment.

Only Italy conceded fewer goals than Russia's tally of four in the qualifying campaign and they recovered from an early 1-0 home defeat to Slovakia to top the section in fine style. A 3-2 win in Ireland – they were three up after 50 minutes – was the crowning glory but Advocaat's men also dug in for a 1-0 triumph in Slovakia to help complete a run of four straight clean sheets.

Vasili Berezutsky, one of only two players to feature in all ten qualifiers and a mainstay of the defence, is sidelined because of injury and his less talented twin Aleksei will have to partner the ageing Sergei Ignashevich at the heart of the defence.

The centre-backs won't have a problem with high balls but on the turn both are susceptible to pace so expect energetic full-backs Aleksandr Anyukov and Yuri Zhirkov to be asked to be on the cover.

Anyukov and Zhirkov are also ace going forward and will provide width in the 4-3-3 formation where the midfield trio will stay pretty central and the nominal wide players, Andrei Arshavin and Alan Dzagoev, will naturally want to come inside.

Arshavin had a miserable qualifying campaign with no goals in ten starts at a time which coincided with his slump at Arsenal but there has just been a glimmer of a revival with the star of Euro 2008 scoring three times in his last six appearances on loan at Zenit.

Of course it's still a long way short of his dazzling best but this could be just the tournament he needs to get back on track and CSKA's Dzagoev is being hyped up to the hills as Russia's next big thing.

The 21-year-old has flattered to deceive but he did score four times in qualifying and will be expected to add to that as well as supply whoever gets the central striking role out of Aleksandr Kerzhakov, Roman Pavlyuchenko and Pavel Pogrebnyak.

Kerzhakov is favourite to get the nod from Advocaat and he is a decent outsider in the Golden Boot market.

He managed 23 goals for runaway Russian champions Zenit this season, second only to the phenomenal Seydou Doumbia, and was on club penalty duty towards the end of the term.

All in, Russia have got a nice blend to their squad, are in a soft group and could go well at a fair price.