A few decades ago, Russia was regarded as a footballing powerhouse when they used to play as the Soviet Union football team. The Soviets played some dazzling football before the team was transformed to the CIS team in 1991 following the breaking up of the Soviet Union and later the Russia national football team in 1992. The Soviet Union team produced several world class footballers like Lev Yashin, Valentin Ivanov, Viktor Ponedelnik, Oleg Blokhin, Rinat Dassayev and many more. The Soviet Union reached the World Cup semis in 1966 and won the inaugural European Championship in 1960. The Soviets also finished as runners-up at the Euros in 1964, 1972 and 1988.
However, the Russian side has been far from replicating the same standard of football played by the Soviet Union as they have never been able to go past the group stage in the three World Cups which they have played in spite of being handed favorable draws. The team hasn’t performed very well at the Euros either as they have never reached past the group stage in all of their Euro finals except Euro 2008 when they reached the semifinals.
Russia did not have a very good start to their qualifying campaign for Euro 2016 and at one point looked to be in contention of only a play-off spot. This led to the sacking of their manager Fabio Capello and he was replaced by CSKA Moscow manager Leonid Slutsky. The latter guided Russia to victory in their final four qualifying games and they qualified for the Euros- finishing second in their group.
R ussia were drawn in Group B of Euro 2016 alongside England, Wales and Slovakia. A reformed Russia under Slutsky had a number of quality players like Artem Dzyuba and Alexander Kokorin in addition to veterans like Sergei Ignashevich and the Berezutski brothers Aleksei and Vasili and were expected to qualify from their group.
Russia began their Euro with a 1-1 draw against group favorites England. However, this was followed by two successive defeats to Slovakia and Wales which subsequently eliminated them from the tournament. As a result of their disappointing showing at France, Slutsky stepped down as manager of the national team.
While selecting Russia’s 23-man squad for the tournament, Slutsky made a huge gamble by not selecting experienced players like Yuri Zhirkov and Russia’s all-time leading scorer Alexander Kerzakhov. Even after Russia were dealt with two injury blows, Slutsky opted for relatively inexperienced players like Dmitri Torbinski and Artur Yusupov ahead of the two veterans.
The absence of both players was felt during the tournament particularly Kerzakhov’s as Russia struggled at the front, scoring only two goals in the tournament. In Zhirkov’s absence, the Russian defence allowed too many gaps which was capitalized by Wales and Slovakia.
Another key factor in Russia’s early exit from the Euros was the double injury blow they were dealt with prior to the tournament. Star playmaker Alan Dzagoev was ruled out of the tournament due to an injured metatarsal and a few days later, experienced midfielder Igor Denisov followed suit.
Dzagoev was the joint top scorer in Euro 2012 and had been a crucial player in the national setup for quite some time. His absence was felt in the tournament as the Russian midfielders weren’t very effective in setting up goal scoring opportunities. Russia also lacked a midfielder like Denisov who could guard the backline.
A lot of Russia’s hopes were pinned on Zenit Saint Petersburg strikers Artem Dzyuba and Alexander Kokorin who had shone during the qualifiers with the former scoring eight goals. However, in the final tournament, both Kokorin and Dzyuba had a disappointing tournament as none of them found the net and did not have many shots on goal throughout the tournament.
Problems at the back for Russia
Slutsky’s decision to not play the likes of Aleksei Berezutski, Denis Glushakov and team captain Roman Shirokov in the starting eleven for most part of the tournament didn’t turn out to be a very good one as the skill and experience of all three players could have saved Russia from elimination especially that of Shirokov’s and Glushakov’s.
While Glushakov and Shirokov appeared as second-half substitutes in the first two matches before being in the playing XI in the final group game, Berezutski only had 45 minutes of action throughout the entire tournament as he came on as a second-half substitute in Russia’s final group game against Wales with the team already 2-0 down.
The Russian squad lacked flair and did not have the right blend of youth and experience. The selection of Smolnikov, Neustadter and Schennikov proved out to be gambles that did not pay off as these players couldn’t provide adequate help to the stalwarts Ignashevich and Berezutski at the back.
Russia have a lot of rebuilding to do after their disastrous campaign and the first thing they should do is pick a balanced squad with a good blend of youth and experience in order to do well in the 2018 World Cup which they will host.
The side have had a very disappointing campaign in Euro 2016 and now have two big competitions lying ahead of them in the next two years as they host both the Confederations Cup and the FIFA World Cup. The Russian team will have to regroup and improve considerably if they are to put up a strong performance in both competitions and bring back the glory days of the Soviet Union national team.