Well well well… Russia are, to say the least, a team you can never be sure of. After making themselves truly known with an extremely valiant performance at Euro 2008, where they were knocked out in the semi-finals to eventual winners Spain. They failed however to qualify for the 2010 world cup, after falling at the final Slovenian-built hurdle. A strong qualifying campaign, combined with a resurgence in the strength of their domestic league, could give the Russian team fresh hope going into the tournament, as they walk out onto the pitch in Wroclaw in a few hours time.
The Russians are no strangers to European Competition. With the exception of Euro 2000, they have qualified for every European Championship since they actually became the Russian National Football Team after the break-up of the Soviet Union and the CIS. After a weak performance against strong opponents at the 1994 World Cup, Euro 96 brought the Russians entry into Euro competition in the harshest way possible, being drawn in a group with Germany, Italy and the Czech Republic. Under the guidance of Oleg Romantsev, the squad, featuring many players from 1994, they mustered a single consellation point against the Czech, bowing out of the tournament in the group stage with a whimper. In the coming years, their fortunes didn’t improve, as they failed altogether to qualify for both the 1998 World Cup and the aforementioned Euro 2000 in Belgium and Holland.
With a new millenium came a new revival, and the Russians, once again under the stewardship of Romantsev, they placed first in their group to qualify directly for the 2002 world cup. They failed to progress past the group stage and Romantsev was immediately replaced. They qualified once again for Euro 2004, and once again exited at the group stage, despite a stronger performance featuring a 2-1 victory over eventual champions Greece. Their qualifying campaign for the 2006 World Cup brought no success, and Russia’s football history hit a dark spot with a 1-1 draw at lowly Estonia and the side’s biggest ever defeat: 7-1 at the hands of the Portuguese. A drastic overhaul was needed.
Change, thy name is Guus.
Fresh off of helping the Australian National Team qualify for their first world cup since the 1970’s and leading them to the round of 32 in the same tournament, Guus Hiddink was announced as the new manager for the Russian National Team, to spearhead their quest for success at Euro 2008. At the now infamous expense of the English, they squeezed into the tournament along with Croatia with a 1-0 win over Andorra. It was at this tournament where the Russian team began to shine. The talents of Roman Pavlyuchenko and Andrey Arshavin fired them into the semi finals, including a famous 3-1 victory over Tournament Favourites. Their resurgence was brought to a decisive and abrupt halt at the hands of eventual champions and still Number 1 in the FIFA Rankings, Spain. After failing to qualify for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Hiddink’s contract expired and he departed. The Russian European campaign for 2012 looked uncertain.
The Run In
Russia’s qualifying run for Euro 2012 went largely unhindered. Despite an early defeat at home to Slovakia, the Russians finished first in qualifying group B to advance directly into the tournament, 2 points ahead of future qualifiers the Republic of Ireland. It is testament to Russia’s unpredictability (and one could argue inconsistency), to look at their build up to Euro. This year has seen the Russians go without defeat, and they have actually gone without losing since February 2011, when they were upset by Iran. More recently, a strong performance in Denmark saw them prevail 2-0, yet they were only able to muster draws against both Uruguay and Lithuania. 2 days after their decidedly lacklustre performance in Nyon, they provided a hugely dominant display over Italy, inflicting a 3-0 defeat to provide the Italians with their third loss in as many matches. Alexander Kerzhakov struck once and Roman Shirokov twice, ensuring the Russians enter the tournament on a confident note.
Russia have been fortunate to be drawn in what many view as the weakest group of the entire tournament, Group A alongside 2004 champions Greece, The Czech Republic and hosts Poland.
For a long time riding the wave of their success at Euro 2004, the Greeks were dealt a harsh reality check at both Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. They failed to win a game at Euro 2008 and only were able to produce one goal. South Africa didn’t provide a massive change in their fortunes, and despite scoring their first goal and victory in a World Cup tournament against Nigeria, they failed to progress past the group stage, being bottled out 2-0 at the hands of Argentina. Their qualifying campaign for Euro 2012 has been stronger however, and they were unbeaten in Group F, qualifying directly for the tournament. Also undefeated this year and ranked 15 in the world, they are hoping their combination of youth and experience will help see them through the group stage, and could provide stiff competition for the Russians if they perform at their full potential.
The Czech have always been able to boast a strong squad with plenty of big names, but not the results to reflect it. After a uninspiring performance at Euro 2008, they failed altogether to qualify for South Africa 2010. Now ranked 26th in the world, the Czech Republic qualified through the playoff stage, after being drawn in a Qualifying group with Spain. They defeated Montenegro 3-0 on aggregate to gain entry. With a squad including the likes of Petr Ćech, Tomáš Rosicky and Milan Baroš, they could prove tough opponents also for the Russians, but a 2-1 defeat last week to Hungary mean they won’t be starting the tournament on the firmest of footing.
Hosting the tournament along with Ukraine, Poland gained automatic qualification Euro 2012, and have seen a surprisingly strong run-in also. Polish football has seen something of a renaissance in the last decade, and they have made themselves far more known as a footballing nation than in previous times. They were able to muster a 0-0 draw with a Portugal in front of a home crowd in February this year, and are entering the tournament on the back of 3 successive wins against Latvia, Slovakia and Andorra. They sit 65th in the FIFA world Rankings.
Based in Warsaw, the Russians start their Euro 2012 campaign today against the Czech Republic, at the Municipal Stadium in Wroclaw. They clash with the Polish in Warsaw in 4 days time in the Nation’s capital, and don’t leave for their final match of the group stage with Greece on the 16th June. If they win their group, they face the Runners up of Group B and what will no doubt be a tough fixture, either against Portugal, Germany, The Netherlands or the rather unfortunate Danish. If they finish runner up, they face the winner of that group.
The Line Up
The Russian Football Federation announced the 23 man Squad they would be taking to Poland and Ukraine last week. It is largely based on talent from their domestic league, and consists of the following:
Manager: Dick Advocaat
- Igor Akineev (Age 26) – Zenit St. Petersburg: 52 Caps, 0 Goals
- Anton Shunin (Age 25) – Dynamo Moscow: 2 Caps, 0 Goals
- Vyacheslav Malafeev (Age 33) – Zenit St. Petersburg: 26 Caps, 0 Goals
- Aleksandr Anyukov (Age 29) – Zenit St. Petersburg: 65 Caps, 1 Goal
- Roman Sharonov (Age 35) – Rubin Kazan: 8 Caps, 0 Goals
- Sergei Ignashevic (Age 32) – CSKA Moscow: 75 Caps, 5 Goals
- Yuri Zhirkov (Age 28) – Anzhi Makhachkala: 52 Caps, 0 Goals
- Aleksei Berezutskiy (Age 29) – CSKA Moscow: 48 Caps, 0 Goals
- Dmitri Kombarov (Age 25) – Spartak Moscow: 4 Caps, 0 Goals
- Vladimir Granat (Age 25) – Dynamo Moscow: 0 Caps, 0 Goals
- Kirill Nababkin (Age 25) – CSKA Moscow: 1 Cap, 0 Goals
- Roman Shirokov (Age 30) – Zenit St. Petersburg
- Igor Denisov (Age 28) – Zenit St. Petersburg
- Konstantin Zyryanov (Age 34) – Zenit St. Petersburg
- Marat Izmailov (Age 29) – Sporting
- Alan Dzagoev (Age 21) – CSKA Moscow
- Denis Glushakov (Age 25) – Lokomotiv Moscow
- Igor Semshov (Age 34) – Dynamo Moscow
- Andrei Arshavin (Age 31) – Arsenal [C]
- Aleksandr Kerzhakov (Age 29) – Zenit St. Petersburg
- Roman Pavlyuchenko (Age 30) – Lokomotiv Moscow
- Aleksandr Kokorin (Age 21) – Dynamo Moscow
- Pavel Pogrebnyak (Age 28) – Fulham
Russia vs. Czech Republic kicks off at 9:45PM local time.