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Euro 2012 Squad Prediction: Part 3/16 - Russia

Thursday 23rd February 2012
With the European Championships in sixteen weeks, I have been studying each competing team in order to predict the 23-man squad who will be flying from all corners of Europe to Poland and Ukraine.

In this third of a sixteen part series, I will be looking at dark horses Russia. You'd probably be correct in saying they aren't the best team in the competition. You might be correct in saying they came through an easy group into the tournament.

But what you cannot say is that this team shouldn't be overlooked, for various reasons.

They might not have the individual quality of Spain or Netherlands. They might not have the history of Germany or Italy. But what they do have is a winning mentality and the ability to win games against anyone over 90 minutes.

They also have a certain Dutch manager, Dick Advocaat, who has won over half the games he's managed since taking over from fellow Dutchman Guus Hiddink in May 2010.

Advocaat is in his sixth spell as a national manager, and this might be the best chance he can get in proving his ability as an international coach following a respective record as manager of the Netherlands in both 1992-94 and 2002-04, a short spell at the United Arab Nations in 2005, a decent spell in charge at South Korea from 2005-06, and a short lived spell in Belgium where he managed three wins in five from October 2009 to April 2010.

But since taking over in Russia, he seems settled on sticking with a national team who have young talent emerging and experienced players playing better than ever. The Russian Premier league looks to be gaining in popularity due to the famous faces of Samuel Eto'o and Roberto Carlos appearing in the yellow and blue colours of Anzhi Makhachkala.

They also have plenty of national team starters playing in the Russian league. Players such as Zenit midfield duo Roman Shirokov and Konstantin Zyryanov. They also have newly-signed Lokomotiv Moscow striker Roman Pavlyuchenko, who will be hoping to prove the footballing world his ability to play at the top level.

Their progress in the last few years has been unnoticed by some, but looking back at the previous European competition; who would have bet against Russia becoming a team to fear?

The improvement became clear in qualifying for the tournament which started in September 2006. They were at home to Croatia, both needing a win after England had raised the bar at Old Trafford by smashing five past Andorra in their opening group game.

The game ended 0-0 with Russia definitely the happiest out of both teams. What followed was an impressive seven game unbeaten run, including another 0-0 draw with Croatia. The highlights perhaps being a 2-0 win away from home against Macedonia with the goals coming from Vladimir Bystrov and Andrei Arshavin.

The result was so important because of the previous game of the group. Group leaders and favourites England had been beaten 2-0 in Zagreb by an improving Croatia side.

Unfortunately, despite England's poor run of form, Russia could not take full advantage of this when they met for the first time at Wembley Stadium in September 2007, where a Michael Owen double capped off with a Rio Ferdinand goal sealed a 3-0 victory for England.

The group was back on. Rivals England and Croatia won their next games a month after, both winning 3-0 and 1-0 respectively. But four days later, the tables would turn once again.

England travelled to Moscow aware an away win would have effectively cancelled out any hope of a Russian progression into the European championships. In front of over 84,000 at the Luzhniki stadium, a Roman Pavlyuchenko double overcame Wayne Rooney's first half opener.

Russia had two more games in order to catch up with England. Two wins out of two would have been enough to progress but somehow, despite their form, they lost the first of two games away to Israel. Diniyar Bilyaletdinov's second half equaliser being cancelled out by a last minute goal from Omer Golan.

The only hope they had of progression was to beat Andorra away from home, and hope that Croatia could do what everyone else in the group had been unable to do. Not only win, but score away from home against England.

And luckily that's what happened. A Dmitri Sychev first half goal was enough to give the Russians the win they needed. Whereas at the same time Croatia were pulling off an incredible win at Wembley which was sealed by Mladen Petric's 25-yard shot which fizzed past Scott Carson's goal and sealed top spot for the Croatians and second place qualification for Russia.

The underdogs had pulled it off and overcome the dominant England into second place. They would rightly be going into the European championships as underdogs and odds on favourites to go out of the competition in the group stage.

But it turned out Russia weren't finished surprising the footballing world.

They were given the difficult task to overcome Spain, Sweden and Greece to go through to the knockout phase. No one was surprised with the outcome of the first game; against much improved favourites Spain who had David Villa to thank for his treble.

Russia did pull a goal back though. Roman Pavlyuchenko with a header at the back post giving Russia only a consolation which would be worth nothing as Cesc Fabregas scored his first ever international goal in the last minute to round off an impressive 4-1 win.

There were no surprises there as everyone had expected a Spanish win, even by a three goal margin. The only way Russia could have progressed from that moment on was to win the remaining two games against Greece and Sweden.

Firstly it was the holders Greece. Both teams were in need of a win after Greece had lost 2-0 to Sweden. Despite this, they were still favourites to win the game against a Russian team who hadn't qualified past the group stage for twenty years.

Back then, they went on to become runners-up, losing against the Netherlands in the final with goals from Ruud Gullit and a rather famous volley from Marco Van Basten.

Somehow, it was holders Greece who dropped their guard and conceded the only goal of the game after a mistake from experienced goalkeeper Antonios Nikopolidis led to a goal for midfielder Konstantin Zyryanov.

That goal that knocked Greece out of the competition and left Russia within distance of an unexpected progression. They needed a win against a Sweden team containing the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Fredrik Ljungberg.

It was a tough one to call as both had the same record and the game would decide both teams' fate. They could not rely on Greece nor Spain to win their game, it was a must win. And that's when Russia showed their winning mentality.

Pavlyuchenko yet again gave Russia the lead in the 24th minute, slotting in after good work on the right. Arshavin rounded them off in the 50th minute after a neat finish after being put through on the left.

Sweden had no answer; they brought on Kim Kallstrom and Markus Allback, replacing Anders Svensson and Mikael Nilsson. Yet they could not inspire a Swedish comeback and Russia were through.

It looked as if the celebrations wouldn't last long though as they were ended runners up in their group, which meant a quarter final game against the Netherlands.

The group included 2006 World Cup finalists Italy and France, and they were accompanied by Romania. The Netherlands had been in incredible form, scoring nine goals and only conceding one. Beating Italy and France 3-0 and 4-1 respectively.

The Russian fans felt condemned as they were facing the tournament favourites. They needed a miracle, a talisman to carry them through and do the unexpected and beat the Netherlands and make the semi-final.

Against all odds, Russia took the lead in the 56th minute after an instinctive finish from in-form striker Pavlyuchenko. The Netherlands were rightly stunned, but they did get the equaliser in the 86th minute after an in swinging free kick from Wesley Sneijder was met by Ruud Van Nistelrooy at the back post to nod past Igor Akinfeev and force extra time.

Cue a Russian onslaught. With eight minutes remaining in the second half of extra time, Dmitri Torbinski peeled off his man at the back post to squeeze the ball in and give Russia the lead for the second time.

And to make matters worse for The Netherlands, man of the match Arshavin turned his defender in the box and finished neatly under Edwin Van Der Sar's legs, sending the crowd into ecstasy, and the Russians into the semi-finals.

They would face Spain for the second time looking to turn around the three goal margin from their previous encounter.

Unfortunately this wasn't to be.

After holding on in the first half they finally conceded in the 50th minute with the goal coming from Xavi Hernandez. Dani Guiza added a second shortly before David Silva slipped in the third on 82 minutes to send the Spanish through and end the Russian hope of winning the European Championship.

Despite their failure to reach the final, Russia were praised for their performances and were tipped for future glory in the hands of the right manager.

They had successfully shown Europe their quality and were determined to show the world what they could do. They were placed in a group which included Germany, Finland and Wales and would have to finish first to make sure of their progress to South Africa. The only way they could go through otherwise was to be runners up with a decent record and then go on to win a play-off.

And that is exactly what happened. In the ten games they played, Russia only lost twice; both to Germany. And by beating Finland and Wales home and away they were placed as the best second place team in Europe.

They were drawn against Slovenia, who were the worst ranked team in the play-offs. The Slovenians, as expected, did not test Russia too much in the first leg as a brace from Dinyar Bilyaletdinov gave Russia a 2-0 lead.

But a 88th minute goal from Nejc Pecnik gave the Slovenians an away goal which turned out to be just what they wanted. The second leg was played in front of just 12,500 in Maribor and a 44th minute goal from Zlatko Dedic was enough to send Slovenia through on the away goals rule.

Russia were stunned, from European semi-finalists to being knocked out of the World Cup play-off against Slovenia. It was time for change and that's when Dick Advocaat came in. His first task as Russia coach was to guide Russia through to the European competition in 2012.

This task seemed fairly straight forward as they were placed in a group with Republic of Ireland being their main rivals. The other competitors were Armenia, Slovakia, Macedonia and Andorra. Russia looked impressive in qualifying, losing only once; at home to Slovakia respectively.

They only drew twice, both 0-0 draws with Republic of Ireland and Armenia. They never really had to go into second gear. They finished top of the group and sent a message to the rest of Europe showing that they are ready for another go at the competition. But this time they have an improved squad, and are in the right form to go on and do well in the tournament.

They have four friendlies in the lead up to the tournament, three of which are away to Denmark, Liechtenstein and Italy. The home game will be against Uruguay. I wouldn't be surprised if Advocaat experiments a bit when choosing the squads for these friendlies.

They have a good balance of experience and youth who seem to work well together as they play with each other in club level as well. The only problem with the young Russians is that most haven't had enough experience in international level, some with only one cap, so these friendlies seem like the perfect chance for Advocaat to give the young players a run out for the national side and see how they handle playing at that level.

An exception to this is CSKA Moscow midfielder Alan Dzagoev. The 21 year old already has 17 caps and four goals. Despite the competition from experienced players such as Roman Shirokov and Diniyar Bilyaletdinov, I wouldn't be surprised if young Dzagoev is picked ahead of these two.

Despite only two of the Russian team being in the Premier League, there will be some familiar faces, and some to look out for. The two players in the Premier League are Andrei Arshavin of Arsenal and Pawel Pogrebnyak of Fulham. But because of the fierce competition for a spot in the centre forward position, Pogbebnyak might find himself out of Advocaat's plans.

Some familiar players are Yuri Zhrikov, formerly of Chelsea. Diniyar Bilyaletdinov of Spartak Moscow, previously of Everton. And of course Lokomotiv Moscow forward Roman Pavluchenko, who recently signed from Tottenham Hotspurs.

The players I would recommend to look out for in the Russian defence are the wing backs Zhirkov and Zenit's Aleksandr Anyukov. In midfield you should look out for holding midfielder Igor Denisov of Zenit and as I mentioned earlier Alan Dzagoev of CSKA Moscow.

In attack I would recommend each three. In order for Arshavin to be given a first team place I would recommend Advocaat plays him as a left sided attacking midfielder. The other two to look out for are Pavlyuchenko, who'll be looking to add to his impressive international goalscoring record.

And finally Zenit forward Aleksandr Kerzhakov- a man who's able to score from any situation; and might feel as if it's his last chance to show the rest of Europe what he's capable of.

If these players are to be picked I'm sure I won't be the only one looking forward to seeing them on show. I personally see Russia doing well in the tournament and would love to see them match their achievement in the previous competition, maybe even do better.



Here is my prediction of the Russian 23-man squad; based on form and current call-ups:

GK: Igor Akinfeev (CSKA Moscow), GK: Vyacheslav Malafeev (Zenit), GK: Vladimir Gabulov (Anzhi)

RB: Aleksandr Anyukov (Zenit), RB: Roman Shishkin (Lokomotiv Moscow), CB: Sergei Ignashevich (CSKA Moscow), CB: Denis Kolodin (Rostov), CB: Vasili Berezutskiy (CSKA Moscow), CB: Aleksei Berezutskyi (CSKA Moscow), LB: Renat Yanbaev (Lokomotiv Moscow), LB: Yuri Zhirkov (Anzhi)

CDM: Igor Denisov (Zenit), CM: Konstantin Zyryanov (Zenit), CM: Igor

Semshov (Dynamo Moscow), CM: Roman Shirokov (Zenit), CAM: Alan Dzagoev (CSKA Moscow), RM: Aleksandr Samedov (Dynamo Moscow), RM: Vladimir Bystrov (Zenit), LM: Dmitri Kombarov (Spartak Moscow), LW: Andrei Arshavin (Arsenal)

ST: Aleksandr Kerzhakov (Zenit), ST: Roman Pavlyuchenko (Lokomotiv Moscow), ST: Pawel Pogrebnyak (Fulham)
Gwyn Jones

Total articles: 6

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