Schedule: June 17 vs. South Korea, June 22 vs. Belgium, June 26 vs. Algeria
World Cup History: As Russia… Qualified (1994, 2002), As Soviet Union… Semifinals (1966), Quarterfinals (1958, 1962, 1970), Second Round (1982, 1986)
Rankings: FIFA (18), Elo (15)
Winning Odds: 80-1
The Soviet Union was a soccer power. The Russian Federation has been anything but. They have qualified for only three World Cups since the breakup. Euro 2008 was the only time the Russians have gotten past a group stage. With nationalism surging under Putin and hosting a World Cup just four years away, the Russians will be looking to change that.
Qualifying Form: The Russians first in UEFA Qualifying Group F, edging Portugal by a point with a 7-1-2 record and a +15 goal difference. They won all five home matches, but were a bit more erratic on the road, drawing Azerbaijan and losing to Northern Ireland
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Coach: Fabio Capello. The 67-year-old Italian is one of Europe’s greatest ever club managers. Counting the ones later stripped, Capello has won nine league titles at AC Milan, Real Madrid, Roma and Juventus. He also lifted the 1994 Champions League with AC Milan. He took over England after Steve McClaren failed to qualify for Euro 2008. The English were dire in South Africa, failing to beat the U.S. and Algeria in the group stage. Instead of the Ghana/Uruguay route to the semifinals, England met a surging Germany in the Round of 16. Capello eventually quit before Euro 2012. Known for disagreements at his multiple stops, it will be interesting to see whether he lasts until 2018.
Tactics: Capello has basically used a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, depending on how you group the midfielders. This team is well-organized, defensive and presses high up the pitch. They are built for thwarting good, attacking teams, rather than taking the initiative against weaker opposition that tries to defend.
Player to Watch: Alan Dzagoev. The 23-year-old CSKA Moscow attacking midfielder has a flair for scoring goals (three at Euro 2012) and for picking up dumb red cards. Whether things go well or poorly for Russia, Dzagoev should be at the center of it.
Squad: The entire 23-man squad is based in Russia. That means fresher legs than most, after a three-month break from December to February and fewer matches played. Capello’s biggest move was dumping star Andiry Arshavin.
Igor Akinfeev is one of the world’s standout goalkeepers. He is fronted by his CSKA club teammates Sergei Ignasevich and Vasili Berezutski. The trio have been playing together, for club and country, for about a decade. They have a strong veteran central midfield. Ditto for the wingers. Dzagoev will play behind the lead striker. There’s still some question whether that will be the veteran Alexandr Kerzhakov or young starlet Alexander Kokorin. Capello could play both in a 4-4-2 or play Kokorin on the wing.
This squad does not have great depth. This means injuries or bookings in certain positions could be devastating. It also limits Capello’s ability to adjust.
Group Outlook: The Russians are the clear second favorites behind Belgium. They could earn a result against the Belgians and win the group. They could also struggle to score and limp away from the group stage. Getting to the knockout rounds would be viewed as a success and a springboard to build from for 2018. It’s conceivable the Russians could surprise a team in the Round of 16, especially Portugal who they played twice in qualifying.
Notable WAG: Olga Berezutskaya is the wife of Russian defender Vasili Berezutski.
Arbitrary Russian Power Rankings: 1. Peter the Great 2. Tolstoy 3. Dostoyevsky 4. Ivan Drago 5. Solzhenitsyn
[USA Today Sports, AP]