Rankings: FIFA (11), Elo (17), SPI (15)
Euro History: Champions (1960*), Finals (1964*, 1972*, 1988*), Semifinals (1968*, 2008) Qualified (1992, 1996, 2004)
Last Five Tournaments: DNQ – SF – DNQ – GS – GS
History: Soviet soccer’s golden age came in the 1960s, spearheaded by legendary goalkeeper Lev Yashin, “The Black Octopus.” The Soviets reached at least the quarterfinal of every major tournament from 1958 to 1972. They won the first Euros in 1960, lost the final in 1964 and 1972 and lost in the semifinals in 1968. The USSR also reached the semifinals of the 1966 World Cup.
The run ceased in 1974. The Soviets were disqualified from qualification after they refused to play the second leg of a playoff with Chile. Two months earlier the socialist government had been ousted in a coup d’etat by Augusto Pinochet. The Chilean team took the field alone, walked a ball into the net and went on to the World Cup. The Soviets missed four of the next five major tournaments.
Russia made little noise following the Soviet Union’s collapse until Euro 2008. Led by Guus Hiddink, the Russians won a must-win group showdown with Spain and scored twice in extra-time to beat out the Netherlands for a place in the semifinals. They lost to eventual champion Spain. This tournament laid the kindling, though, as of 2012, the Russians are still trying to start the fire. Stars Andrey Arshavin, Roman Pavlyuchenko and Yuri Zhirkov never settled in the Premier League and returned to Russia. They failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup after being upset in the second-place playoff by Slovenia.
Qualification: The Russians finished first in qualifying group B, two points ahead of second-place Ireland. They had a 7-2-1 record. They were tied for second fewest goals allowed with four. They earned (what counts for) an impressive qualifying win by beating Ireland 3-2 in Dublin. The Russians have allowed just one goal in their last eight matches.
Coach: The Russians are coached by 64-year-old Dutchman Dick Advocaat (get your puerile snickers out of the way here). He has experienced success in multiple destinations. At club level he has won the Eredivisie with PSV, consecutive Scottish Premier League titles with Rangers and both the Russian Premier League and the UEFA Cup with Zenit Saint Petersburg. At international level he took the Dutch to the quarterfinals during the 1994 World Cup and brought South Korea to the group stage in 2006.
Squad: The Russians have a strong back four, a capable midfield and a lot of creativity and firepower going forward. Captain Andrew Arshavin, when on his game, can be a world-class creative force. By most accounts he has found his past form, since returning to Zenit St. Petersburg on loan. They also have 21-year-old attacking midfielder Alan Dzagoev who is a hot prospect with multiple seasons of Champions League experience. He scored four goals for the Russians during Euro qualifying.
Russia have multiple striker options, including Roman Pavlyuchenko and Fulham’s Pavel Pogrebnyak, who scored six goals in eight matches during the season’s second half. They have the midfield corps of a Zenit St. Petersburg team that has won back to back Russian titles. They also have a very skilled goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev who succeeds at top level, despite being just 6’1”.
Tactics: Depending on how you group the players, Russia’s formation is either a 4-3-3, or a 4-3-2-1 “Christmas Tree.” Advocaat will play a lead striker, Arshavin and Dzagoev behind him and three more midfielders in a line supported by a four man line behind them. They should take advantage of their skill and fitness by ramping up the tempo on teams and letting the two attacking midfielders create. With both skill and size, they can also convert set pieces.
Mother Russia: Twenty-four of Russia’s 26 man provisional squad play in Russia. That should prove a formidable advantage. The Russian winter is brutal. It stopped Napoleon. It stopped German panzers. Importantly for our purposes, it stops the Russian season every year from December through February. Virtually every other European league has, for the most part been going since mid-August. Russian players got three months to rest.
This also helps their continuity. Akinfeev and both Russian central defenders have played together at CSKA Moscow since 2004. Left back Yuri Zhirkov was a CSKA man as well until 2009. As many as five or six of the seven remaning players could be from Zenit St. Petersburg. Dick Advocaat also coached all the Zenit players. Facing international teams with rosters clustered together from disparate clubs, the Russians could gain a crucial advantage.
Fun Fact: Vladimir Putin may be the real life most interesting man in the world.
Prognosis: They have both the best and most well-rounded squad in Group A. They should progress easily, if they play to their potential (which has been an issue). Pencil them into the quarterfinals, where they will be dispatched by Germany or Holland.
[Photos via Presswire, Getty]