The hosts of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Russia, will be hoping to improve on their recent struggles in international competitions, at home.
When Russia bid for the hosting rights of the 2018 FIFA World Cup back in the year 2009, they were riding on a high, having made it all the way to the semifinals of the UEFA Euro 2008.
However, things have been on a downslide for the Sbornaya since then, as they have failed to get past the group stages of any international competition ever since, including last year’s FIFA Confederations Cup 2017 on home soil, while they didn’t even qualify for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. They come into the competition as the second lowest ranked side among the 32 participating teams.
Under manager Stanislav Cherchesov however, Russia will be hoping to put an end to their dismal record in international competitions and put a smile on the faces of the home supporters this summer.
Groups and Fixtures
Drawn in Group A alongside the second lowest ranked team in the competition, Saudi Arabia, the Russians will also have dark horses Uruguay and Egypt to contend with in the first round of the tournament.
They will kick the summer’s blockbuster event off on the 14th of June against Saudi Arabia, in what promises to be one of the most low profile contests of the competition. They will then take on Egypt five days later, before winding things off against Uruguay on the 25th.
Manager Cherchesov announced a 28-man provisional squad three weeks ago which will be trimmed down to 23 as per FIFA regulations before the tournament kicks off. Here’s how the Russia squad looks at the moment;
— Сборная России (@TeamRussia) May 11, 2018
Goalkeepers: Igor Akinfeev (CSKA Moscow), Vladimir Gabulov (Brugge), Soslan Dzhanaev (Rubin Kazan), Andrei Lunev (Zenit St. Petersburg)
Defenders: Vladimir Granat, Fyodor Kudryashov (both Rubin Kazan), Ilya Kutepov (Spartak Moscow), Roman Neustadter (Fenerbahce), Konstantin Rausch (Dynamo Moscow), Andrei Semyonov (Akhmat Grozny), Igor Smolnikov (Zenit St. Petersburg), Mario Fernandes, Sergei Ignashevich (both CSKA Moscow)
Midfielders: Yury Gazinsky (Krasnodar), Alan Dzagoev, Alexander Golovin (both CSKA Moscow), Alexander Erokhin, Yury Zhirkov, Daler Kuzyaev (all Zenit St. Petersburg), Roman Zobnin, Alexander Samedov (both Spartak Moscow), Anton Miranchuk (Lokomotiv Moscow), Alexander Tashyev (Dynamo Moscow), Denis Cheryshev (Villarreal)
Forwards: Artem Dzyuba (Arsenal Tula), Aleksei Miranchuk (Lokomotiv Moscow), Fyodor Smolov (Krasnodar), Fyodor Chalov (CSKA Moscow)
There were a number of big names missing from the squad when the announcement was made, with the likes of Aleksandr Kokorin, Viktor Vasin and Aleksandr Selikhov not making the cut due to injuries. Denis Glushakov is another player that only made it to the reserve list, probably owing to a knee ligament injury.
Veteran defender Sergei Ignashevich had to come out of retirement as a replacement for the injured Ruslan Kambolov. The 38-year old is the most capped player for Russia, with 121 appearances and his experience will come in very handy. There was also a spot for 34-year old former Chelsea star Yuri Zhirkov in the ranks.
There were also call-ups for uncapped players Aleksandr Tashaev and Fedor Chalov, who have been in fine form in the Russian Premier League, while exiled striker Artem Dzyuba also found a place in the provisional roster owing to his good form at loan club Arsenal Tula.
While there is plenty of talent within the ranks, a lot will be riding on the shoulders of captain and first choice goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev. With 105 appearances for the Sbornaya, the 32-year old is the fourth-highest capped player and has over the years been a largely reliable presence in goal.
However, the captain has also been guilty of making several high-profile errors in the last edition of the World Cup as well as the Confederations Cup last year, which he will be keen on avoiding.
The 54-year old former USSR and Russia goalkeeper took charge of the national team in August 2016, following the sacking of Leonid Slutsky, but hasn’t been able to get the best of results during his two years at the helm.
Having overseen 19 fixtures since taking over, Cherchesov has managed to lead Russia to just five victories, while losing nine matches, including the 1-0 friendly defeat to Austria a day ago. There have been reports of unrest within the squad, with the players understood to be unhappy with the style of play and tactics.
Cherchesov is someone who prefers the defence-first approach over the expansive attack-minded style and under him, the Russian team has been churning out some dour performances. While the 54-year old did experiment with a 4-1-4-1 setup against Austria, he is likely to stick with the 3-5-1-1 formation he has been using for most of his tenure.
With Akinfeev between the sticks, the three-man backline for the Russians is likely to comprise of the veteran Ignashevich, along with Vladimir Granat and Roman Neustadter, with Fyodor Kudryashov likely to operate as the backup.
Aleksandr Samedov is the favourite to slot in as the right-sided wing-back, while seasoned campaigner Yuri Zhirkov should take up the opposite flank. Both the wing-backs are likely to find their forward movement restricted by the manager, giving the team almost a look of a back five.
In the centre of the park, the 21-year old Aleksandr Golovin is a definite starter. Tipped as the poster boy of Russian football, the CSKA Moscow superstar will have a huge role to play in the tournament. He is likely to be partnered by club teammate Alan Dzagoev who has been a permanent fixture in the national team for quite a number of years now, with the 24-year old Roman Zubnin the favourite to occupy the third midfield slot to offer some defensive solidity.
Aleksey Miranchuk will operate in the hole behind the striker and try to provide the creative spark with Fyodor Smolov the most likely to lead the line for the hosts.
Probable Starting XI (3-5-1-1): Akinfeev; Granat, Ignashevich, Neustadter; Samedov, Dzagoev, Zubnin, Golovin, Zhirkov; Miranchuk; Smolov;
Russia’s performances in international tournaments has left a lot to be desired over the years. And things have hardly improved under Cherchesov over the past year or so. However, playing on home soil, in front of a fully charged home support can have a huge positive influence on the team. And the fact that they will be knowing the conditions much better than their opponents is another thing that will be in their favour.
Despite all this, it is hard to see them toppling Uruguay in the group, but they can give Egypt a good run for their money for the second spot, especially if the Pharaohs are without the services of star man Mohamed Salah. All in all, there is a slim chance that Russia can make it out of the group stages for the first time in any international tournament since 2008, but even if they do, it is difficult to imagine them getting past Spain or Portugal in the first knockout stage.