Euro 2016 may be a tournament too far for ageing Russia
Simon Sinclair | March 30, 2016
Russia overcame adversity to battle their way into Euro 2016, reaching the competition for the fourth time in succession.
Leonid Slutsky’s men finished second in qualifying Group G, narrowly avoiding the play-offs, to reach the finals in France.
They are an outside bet at 40/1 to win the competition for the first time in its present format, having claimed the inaugural tournament back in 1960 when known as the Soviet Union.
How they reached the finals
Russia found life tougher than expected to qualify for Euro 2016 after finishing behind Austria in Group G.
Their campaign started with Fabio Capello at the helm as they attempted to put a poor performance at the 2014 World Cup, where they exited at the group stage, behind them.
The draw was favourable for Russia with only Austria and Sweden expected to provide resistance, although they were anticipated to top the pool without a problem.
Russia began their push towards the finals with a comprehensive 4-0 victory over Liechtenstein, but draws against the Swedes and Moldova stalled their progress.
They were then defeated in their trip to Vienna when Rubin Okotie’s strike handed Austria all three points, leaving the Eastern European outfit adrift of the Alpine nation at the top of the group.
Crowd trouble in Montenegro presented them with a 3-0 victory after keeper Igor Akinfeev was struck with a flare, but their respite lasted just one more match as Capello’s men were stunned by Austria in Moscow.
The 1-0 defeat marked the end for the Italian’s tenure as he stepped down in July 2015 to be replaced by Slutsky, who combined his duties as manager of CSKA Moscow.
Russia ended the campaign strongly with four wins on the spin, including a 1-0 victory over Sweden, to ensure they earned automatic qualification for the finals.
Can ageing defence remain solid in France?
Russia reached the semi-finals of Euro 2008, losing to eventual champions Spain 3-0 in Vienna.
The Eastern European outfit will enter the competition eight years later with several members of that squad still playing integral roles in their starting lineup.
Sergei Ignashevich, Vasili Berezutski and Yuri Zhirkov all remain as part of the back four that was defeated by Spain all those years ago, along with Aleksei Berezutski who was on the bench.
The quartet are now reaching the twilights of their respective careers, with Ignashevich still going strong at the age of 36.
A solid backline was Russia’s strength during their qualifying campaign due to the experience of their defenders.
Igor Smolnikov provides the youthful exuberance at the age of 27, while younger players have been discarded by Slutsky in his attempt to defy the odds in France.
Russia conceded just five goals in their qualifying matches, keeping five clean sheets in the process.
However, their ageing backline will face a much tougher test in Group B against the pace of England and Wales, while Slovakia will attempt to provide a shock.
For all their nous at the back Ignashevich, Berezutski and Zhirkov do not have the legs to keep up with the likes of Gareth Bale, Raheem Sterling and Jamie Vardy.
There will be little doubt that Russia will deploy a deep line, which will inevitably invite pressure on their defence.
The veterans will face not only a test of their physical skills, but also their mental at the tournament, which could be pressed to breaking point, especially with little time to recover.
Slutsky seems intent on gambling that their experience pays dividend, but he may well regret his approach should they show early signs of fatigue against England come June 11th.
Dzagoev to lead the way
Alan Dzagoev was one of the stars of Euro 2012, despite Russia’s brief stay in the tournament in Poland and Ukraine.
The midfielder notched three goals, including a brace in his side’s victory over the Czech Republic, which earned him plenty of interest from clubs around Europe.
No move materialised and Dzagoev has remained at CSKA Moscow, helping his team continue their dominance of the Russian Premier League.
Slutsky knows the talent the 25-year-old possesses and will be looking at him to provide a spark in the tournament as he enters the prime of his career.
Dzagoev has almost 50 caps so there is no excuse for him not to perform in France as his team will desperately need him to shine in the middle of the park to ease the pressure on skipper Roman Shirokov.
Denis Cherysev has endured a frustrating career at Real Madrid and at international level due to lack of playing time.
The 25-year-old appears to have a great deal of ability, but has been unable to land a consistent run of matches to fully develop his skills due to competition at the Bernabeu.
He has shown glimpses of talent in a loan spell at Villarreal and at Valencia, where he has hit the ground running for Gary Neville’s men.
Cherysev faces uncertainty over his place in Slutsky’s squad, but a strong end to the La Liga season may put him in contention.
Although the veteran manager may be against including the 25-year-old, he will need his talent along with his youthful presence as there is a dearth of quality options available to him.
They will face midfields will plenty of energy in Group B, and they cannot afford to be out-battled in the engine room due to deficiencies elsewhere.
All eyes on Zenit duo
Zenit St Petersburg forwards Aleksandr Kokorin and Artyom Dzyuba will carry the weight of expectations to fire for their side in the finals.
Dzyuba was top scorer in Group G during qualifying with eight goals, although five of those strikes came against Liechtenstein, including four in one match.
The 27-year-old has found a good run of form since his Zenit, dispatching 18 times in 33 appearances in all competitions, with an impressive six strikes in eight Champions League matches.
He does not have a lot of experience at international level, but he has enough playing time against quality opponents to not be overawed by the occasion of the finals.
Dzyuba will get chances against Russia’s Group B opponents and has shown a propensity to take advantage of his opportunities.
As a result he is backed at 33/1 to be leading goalscorer in the tournament, which could be an interesting punt.
Kokorin linked up with Dzyuba in January when he completed a move to Zenit from Dynamo Moscow.
The 25-year-old had a poor showing in front of goal during qualifying, scoring only three times, two of which came from the penalty spot.
However, he has shown versatility to play on the flank as well as leading the line, which will be a valuable asset for Slutsky to have in his 23-man squad.
Kokorin has been unable to branch an understanding with Dzyuba at Zenit since his move, and with time running out before the competition Slutsky will be hoping they can fire together before June.
Options apart from the Zenit duo are limited as Aleksandr Kerzakhov appears to be fading into the sunset playing for FC Zurich, while Fyodor Smolov lacks experience against quality opposition.
Like elsewhere in the squad, Slutsky will enter the tournament praying that the talent will be enough.