For fans of the English national team, the story may sound eerily familiar. A disappointing campaign at the last major international tournament despite talk of a golden generation, the departure of a big name manager and the appointment of a new boss with a brief to change things. With Euro 2012 just days away, the story could just as easily be applied to Russia under Dick Advocaat as to England under Roy Hodgson, and as both countries look forward to one last push from an ageing squad, it is soon apparent that it is not just the Three Lions who head to Poland and Ukraine under unusual circumstances.
In 2008, Russia were the toast of the tournament after winners Spain, who they faced twice and were thoroughly undone by on both occasions. However, their run to the semi-finals featured one of the games of the tournament against the Dutch in the previous round, and the clinching goal which Andrei Arshavin netted confirmed his status as one of the players of the competition. The following year he was an Arsenal player and the rest, as they say, is history.
With Guus Hiddink at the helm and a squad entering its prime, it looked for all the world as if Russia could become the footballing power that the Soviet Union never quite was, their semi-final berth the best since the collapse of Communism, and all signs pointed towards a spot in South Africa and another chance to show the footballing world what was going on beyond the old Iron Curtain. However, their qualifying group contained a powerful Germany side, and two defeats to the favourites meant that Russia would face the dreaded play-off for a spot at the greatest show on earth. Sighs of relief were heard from St Petersburg to Vladivostok as lowly Slovenia were announced as their opponents, surely an obstacle they would overcome. With 85 minutes of the first leg played in Moscow, Diniyar Bilyaletdinov had given them a 2-0 lead and qualification was all but secure. However, two minutes later Nejc Pecnik netted for the away side, and in the second leg a sole Zlatko Dedic goal achieved the unthinkable. Russia were beaten on the away goals rule, and Hiddink departed having failed to bring the journey which has started two years earlier to a satisfactory conclusion.
Dick Advocaat was a thoroughly sensible appointment as the next manager, having won Zenit’s first league title he was more than familiar with many of the players, and his time at club level had provided him with first-hand knowledge of those outside his own St Petersburg squad. With the Euro 2008 now placing Russia as a top seed in qualifying for the forthcoming tournament, anything less than a comfortable passage would be frowned upon by a nation still recovering from the disappointment of watching the World Cup without any representation. When their group threw out Ireland as their nearest competitors with Slovakia, Armenia, FYR Macedonia and Andorra also thrown in, it looked a simple enough task.
The Irish pushed them all the way, and after an insipid performance at home to Slovakia in just the second game, losing 1-0 in Moscow, there were those in Russia already calling for Advocaat’s head on a platter. In the end it was a 3-2 outplaying of the Irish in Dublin and a revenge win in Slovakia that sealed qualification, but a turgid goalless draw in Armenia and heroic defensive display by Richard Dunne to deny the hosts at the Luzhniki once again cast shadows over the squad – captain Arshavin was playing poorly for Arsenal and looked disinterested on the field, and whilst their defence was sufficiently stingy, their attacking play was often slow and laboured.
Nevertheless, the important thing was that they made it to Euro 2012, with no hazardous play-off to negotiate. Now, Advocaat, Arshavin and the rest of the Russian squad face the unenviable task of restoring the golden generation – with many of the 2008 squad still playing internationally and approaching the twilight of their careers, recreating the quality that saw them past the Dutch on that famous night will be no mean feat.
More than half of the 23 man squad, 15 to be precise, are aged 28 or over. Of those younger, one is third choice goalkeeper Anton Shunin, three are backup defenders with just three caps between them, one is the unlikely-to-start Denis Glushakov, and another is emergency striker Alexander Kokorin. Only CSKA keeper Igor Akinfeev and his playmaker clubmate Alan Dzagoev, at 21 the youngest member of the squad, are likely to make any great impact, and yet along with Roman Shirokov and Alexander Kerzhakov are probably the most important players in the squad. Sporting’s Marat Izmailov makes a shock return to the international fold a full six years since his last appearances, but continuity is the overriding theme in Advocaat’s squad as they attempt to draw the curtain on this generation with a triumphant flourish.
Unfortunately, as with England, the draw has done them no favours. Greece, Poland and the Czech Republic make up arguably the tournament’s most even foursome in Group A, but on paper the Russians will expect to make it out of the first phase. However, lying in wait in the next round will almost certainly be one of Germany, Portugal and The Netherlands, barring a miracle from an unlucky Denmark side. Unless they can somehow channel the spirit of 2008 and get back to their free-flowing counter-attacking best, the Arshavin generation is likely to go down in Russian football history as the group of players who could have done so much, and yet ultimately came away empty-handed.