The golden era that should have followed CSKA Moscow and Zenit St Petersburg’s UEFA Cup triumphs in the 2000s never materialised internationally for Russia, even if they have reached their fourth European Championship in a row.
The players in Russia’s run to the Euro 2008 semi-finals never really kicked on; even the posterboy of that team, Andrey Arshavin, has resorted to winding down his career in Kazakhstan. The 2016 Russian vintage still features half a dozen players from that squad, but expectations of matching their best tournament performance since the Soviet Union finished as runners-up to the Dutch in 1988 are understandably low.
WHICH RUSSIA WILL TURN UP?
In the aftermath of the disastrous Euro 2012 campaign, a video of fans berating Arshavin, Yuri Zhirkov & Co. in a hotel lobby went viral and faith in the often-lacklustre team sank to rock bottom. Very few Russians play abroad, partly due to the domestic league’s restrictions on foreign players, which has led to stars such as Aleksandr Kokorin feeling no desire to challenge themselves.
On the other hand, that Russian players have had little exposure to Western Europe means there are a lot of immensely talented players who remain relatively unknown quantities, from Fyodor Smolov and Aleksandr Golovin to Zenit pair Artyom Dzyuba and Oleg Shatov. Many Russians grow up on a diet laden with futsal – the national team finished as runners-up to Spain in this year’s European Championship – and develop excellent technical ability, just lacking the mental application to succeed on a global scale.
The opening fixture against England will focus the minds of fans and players alike, given that many Russians follow English football ahead of their own Premier League, but an otherwise manageable group means there’ll be no hiding place should they fail to progress.
What they’ve learned
Find the next generation of defenders. The strong central-defensive spine of Igor Akinfeev, Sergei Ignashevich and Vasili Berezutski (as well as his twin brother Alexei) has been in place for nearly a decade, and there’s no Plan B.
Hosting Austria, injury forced Fabio Capello to field uncapped teenager Nikita Chernov – who still hasn’t played a single league game in his professional career – alongside Ivan Novoseltsev, himself making only his second appearance. Austria took home a valuable three points.
This helps to explain Russia’s scramble to repatriate Brazil-born goalkeeper Guilherme, 30, and Schalke’s Roman Neustadter, 28. The defender – whose father, Peter, played for Mainz and Kazakhstan – was born in Ukraine and played twice for Germany, but was hurriedly given Russian citizenship after being named in their Euro 2016 squad. He’s their only player at a foreign club.
They’ve options going forward. One of the keys to international tournament success is hitting form at the right time, and Russian Premier League top goalscorer Fyodor Smolov is on fire. Plus, in 6ft 5in targetman Dzyuba – probably the main beneficiary of the tighter restrictions on imports, which earned him a move to then-champions Zenit last summer – they have the fourth-highest goalscorer in qualifying. This season he has bagged 30 goals for club and country.
Then there’s former futsal star Oleg Shatov, who has searing pace and fantastic close control out wide and registered 10 goals and 13 assists for Zenit in 2015-16, and his versatile club team-mate Kokorin, one of the most technically gifted forwards Russia has had for years.
Opponents attacking the defence with speed is a big issue. They may know each other well by now but with a combined age of 69, Ignashevich and Berezutski have an obvious Achiles’ heel: pace. Against teams with more physical, less mobile targetmen they can cope, but faced with speed it’s a different story. Playing Manchester United in Moscow in the Champions League last October, they were reasonably untroubled until Anthony Martial pressed further forward and pounced for the equaliser.
At full-back, Igor Smolnikov does have genuine pace. However, that turns into a disadvantage when his tendency to bomb forward leaves him far up the pitch and the central defenders hopelessly exposed to a counter-attack.
For so long a figure of ridicule, Smolov has at long last exploded into life in the last 18 months – and since the turn of this year in particular – to become the most lethal weapon in Russia. At the start of last season he had only scored five goals in almost seven seasons as a professional, and was pictured more often accompanying his former Miss Russia and reality TV star partner Victoria Lopyreva than doing the business on the pitch.
Following a breakthrough spell on loan at struggling Ural Sverdlovskaya Oblast last season, where he helped them scrape clear of relegation, Smolov has finally found his perfect system at Krasnodar, where he plays centrally in a front three. Towards the end of 2015/16 he plundered a Luis Suarez-esque 13 goals in seven league games, including four against his former club Ural.
His game is about more than just goals, however. He has also been played as a lone striker – a role he fills brilliantly thanks to his intelligence and anticipation – and out wide, where Slutsky will most likely deploy him. Smolov’s greatest weapons in France will be his unpredictability and his confidence.
Slutsky has miraculously managed to juggle his CSKA Moscow duties with guiding Russia’s faltering Euro 2016 qualification campaign to a successful conclusion, helped by his familiarity with the core of the national side through his time at CSKA.
The 45-year-old is famous for rocking nervously back and forth on the bench all game, but he has earned respect by winning seven domestic trophies in six years. His contract with Russia runs out after the tournament so there’s little pressure on him to deliver this summer – just don’t bet against him finding a way to do it.