The emergence of the Russian national side at the 2008 European Championships in Austria and Switzerland appears to have been no token achievement. Whereas some smaller footballing nations such as Greece and South Korea have succeeded on the big stage and faded back into relative mediocrity, the Sbornaja have backed up their fine displays last summer by continuing to impress their brand of attacking football upon their rivals as they aim to bag a place at next years World Cup.
With Guus Hiddink at the helm of the Russian ship they were initially clear favourites alongside Germany to advance from Group 4, but with the somewhat suprising challenge mounted by a Finland side growing in confidence they can ill-afford to become complacent if they are to etch their name into the draw for South Africa 2010.
Russia v Wales
Russia began their campaign against a Wales side who kicked off their own offensive on the qualifying stages four days earlier with a nervy 1-0 victory against Azerbaijan. The Lokomotiv Stadium was rocking from kick off, and the Russian intent was outlined early on with Andrei Arshavin cutting back for Roman Pavlyuchenko, only for the Spurs’ hitman to fire straight into the palms of Wayne Hennessy from 10 yards.
After weathering an early storm of pressure from a home side bristling with attacking prowess, Wales were awarded a penalty when Gareth Bale’s surge into the Russian penalty area was brought to an abrupt end by Igor Semshov’s trip. The Spur’s full back dusted himself off to take the kick, but Igor Akinfeev dealt comfortably with the attempt from 12-yards which was at an ideal height for the CSKA stopper to palm away.
Where Akinfeev succeeded, his opposite number Hennessey failed. Konstantin Zyrianov fell under a challenge from Craig Morgan, and Pavlyuchenko made no mistake, chipping down the middle and breaking the deadlock in the process.
As the rain continued to fall in Moscow into the second half, Pavlyuchenko was again the driving force of the Russian attacks as he sent a deflected long range effort wide, before the Welsh showed their resilience when Bale made amends for his missed spotkick by teeing up Joe Ledley to level it up.
However, Russia made sure of the points as they poured forwards in the closing stages of the match. Andrei Arshavin continued to hamper the opposing defence and duly set up the winner with nine minutes remaining – the Arsenal star’s chip into the box resulted in Zyrianov’s effort being pushed away by Hennessey, but only as far as Pavel Pogrebnyak who capitalised on a poor clearance and slotted home.
Germany v Russia
A month later and Guus Hiddink took his troops to Dortmund where they would face off against hot favourites Germany. In what was seen by many as the glamour tie of the group, the former Chelsea manager saw his side plundered by a typically efficient display from Joachim Loew’s men even before the end of the first half.
After just eight minutes some superb play on the edge of the box from Bastian Schweinsteiger provided the perfect threaded through ball for Lukas Podolski who turned and fired a subliminal and fierce drive past a flailing Akinfeev.
The decline deepened half way through the first 45 minutes when Piotr Trochowski sent a low chip into the area for the influential Schweinsteiger who controlled superbly, and kept the composure to set up a rapidly advancing Michael Ballack. The German skipper made absolutely certain that Akinfeev would be picking the ball out of his net for the second time in just 23 first half minutes.
Hiddink will have been furious with his sides showing in the first half, and his team talk appeared to have paid dividends five minutes into the second period when Andrei Arshavin converted from point blank range to reduce the defecit.
Despite having time on their side, Russia were unable to produce an equaliser and the Germans slammed their authority on the group.
Russia v Finland
Four days later and it was back to Moscow, where they replicated their second half display in Dortmund against Finland. With the Russian’s exploding out of the blocks, Finland were caught cold on several occasions as Yuri Zhirkov threatened consistently with his pace and driving runs, and it paid off on 23 minutes when he exchanged passes with Arshavin before his chip over Jussi Jaaskelainen was haplessly bundled over the line by Petri Pasanen for an own goal.
The trend for own goals continued into the second half as Finland continued to afford the Russian’s creative hub in Arshavin time and space; the Arsenal man’s cross was met minimally by Semak, but Zhyrianov drove the ball back across the goal and it was met this time by a despairing Lampi who only had his own poor positioning to blame for putting the home side 2-0 up.
A superb display from the dynamic Arshavin was capped with a magnificent solo effort in the dying minutes, evading a pincer-movement from the Finnish centre backs before rounding Jaaskelainen and sealing a 3-0 win in outstanding fashion.
Russia v Azerbaijan
Into 2009 and it was the turn of Azerbaijan to visit the venue of the 2008 Champions League final, who remained on a solitary point gained in Baku during a stalemate with fellow minnows Liechtenstein.
The former Soviet state showed just why their points tally was so meagre when Arshavin almost put the Sbornaja ahead within three minutes.
Azerbaijan battled bravely through the first half an hour with some stout defending, along with a lack of cutting edge from the Guus Hiddink’s men. But the bubble was burst spectacularly on 32 minutes when the continued application of Russian attacking movements proved too much for the part timers. A free kick awarded on the edge of the 18-yard box was curled home by Spurs’ star Roman Pavlyuchenko – Moscow breathed a sigh of relief.
Although the away side ventured forward on occasion and proved that they were not just a side making up the numbers, an aesthitically gratifying team effort was rounded off by Zyrianov who assured that the 3 points were to be Russia’s.
Liechtenstein v Russia
Following the explosive attacking display in Moscow a month earlier, Hiddink’s men were tamed away from home against another of the groups weaker sides in Liechtenstein.
The only goal of the game came courtesy of Konstantin Zyrianov whose chipped effort trickled over the line and consolidated the Russian occupation of the second qualifying spot in group 4.
How Thing’s Stand…
A win for Russia away to a plucky Finnish side in their next fixture should virtually assure them of at least second place in group 4 – barring any complacency – but it could be left down to what promises to be a fascinating encounter at the Lokomotiv stadium in the penultimate group game against Germany, to settle it at the summit.
Assured, attractive and attackingly assertive, Russia will surely be a darkhorse in South Africa.
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