Can Andrei Arshavin lead Russia to it’s first European Championship success since 1960? Ciaran Bonass takes a look at their odds.
Much like the dolls that derive their name from the nation, there’s more to Russia than meets the eye with some concealed treasures to be found in a generally uninspiring group of journeymen who stick to their principles of slick passing and possession football to an enviable degree.
Few teams have managed to embarrass Ireland to the level Russia effortlessly managed during a qualifying campaign which looked set to be a struggle rather than the stroll it proved to be after a poor opening saw them garner only three points and one goal from two games. That saw their Dutch coach Dick Advocaat come in for serious criticism, particularly when his charges were beaten 1-0 in Moscow by Slovakia in October 2010 before clinically dispatching Giovanni Trapattoni’s side 3-2 in their next outing in what was perhaps the most one-sided one-goal victory this writer has ever witnessed. They perhaps went one better on themselves when entirely dominating Ireland again in the return game in Moscow just under a year later only to see an Iron Curtain incarnate before their eyes in the form of Richard Dunne and a quite mystifying final scoreline of 0-0, although avoiding Russia in the group stages was perhaps the only silver-lining in the murky cloud that the Group C draw became for Trapattoni and co.
Russia’s reward then for their performance in qualifying and the high seeding earned by virtue of some sterling efforts at Euro 2008 – when they occasionally dazzled before being soundly beaten 3-0 in the semi-finals by a Spanish side in their pomp and en route to football domination – was to be drawn in a Group A they could scarcely have chosen any better with their own hands, and saw them placed alongside hosts Poland, Greece and the Czech Republic. The 11/10 on offer for Russia to top the group standings is the skinniest for any team outside of Spain at 8/13 but it represents outstanding value when the experience and quality of the side is evaluated.
Team captain Andrei Arshavin was inspirational in guiding the side to that semi-final in 2008, and despite taking part in every one of the qualifiers without scoring, he is usually unrecognisable from the surly, disinterested and downright lazy player who so frustrated Arsenal fans before returning to former club Zenit St Petersburg on loan in January when he takes his place in a national XI. Arshavin will be even more desperate to perform at his peak as a result of turning the wrong side of 30 just before the tournament begins so he will be more aware than anybody that the twilight of his career is upon him now.
A considerable worry for Advocaat, and Russian fans alike, will be the doubts over Alan Dzagoev’s participation this summer after a broken toe he suffered ruled the midfielder out for the end of the Russian league season as the CSKA Moscow man was their joint top scorer in qualifying alongside Roman Pavyluchenko with four goals in eight appearances and the considerable threat he offers going forward would be sorely missed by a team not brimming with potency, while his intelligence and movement also belies his 21 years.
Russia will do well to match their achievements of four years ago but their brand of football and excellent work ethic alloyed to a steel befitting the sickle on the former soviet flag should see them more than capable of topping a group featuring three of the tournament’s biggest outsiders.