It was the result which few people expected, and those brave few who did stake a pound or two on the outcome found themselves significantly wealthier as a result. Russia had been warned – 2004 was warning enough for anyone – but Greece have not earned their reputation as a well-drilled, if not fascinating, team for nothing, and when a mix-up in the Russian defence allowed Giorgios Karagounis to race through a drive a shot beyond Vyacheslav Malafeev, the writing was on the wall. Try as they might, Russia lacked the incisive qualities needed to break down a Greek side content to sit deep and defend, and when the final whistle blew it signalled the end of a Euro 2012 campaign which promised so much after that 4-1 win over the Czech Republic on the opening day of the tournament.
With the end of Russia’s tournament comes the end of Dick Advocaat’s spell as manager, the Dutchman’s final competition for Russia ending in disappointment as he heads back to his native Holland for a spell with PSV Eindhoven. Had the move not been pre-arranged, chances are he would have been sacked anyway, however the nature of his switch allows him to slink away with Euro 2012 marking only a minor blot on his managerial copypaper, guaranteed a high-profile position in his homeland.
That of course, will spark the usual debate and discussion over the next man to take the reigns of the national team. The obvious choice is Zenit’s Luciano Spalletti, the charismatic Italian one of the most successful managers in the country with champions Zenit, already living in Russia, and having the distinct advantage of knowing the Russian Premier League, where the overwhelming majority of the squad are based, as well as anyone in the world game.
Other candidates remain in contention, not least because of the Russian propensity to dispense with club managers on a regular basis. CSKA’s Leonid Slutsky spent the last three months of the season waiting to be fired only to survive a disappointing 3rd place finish so far. As one of the nation’s up and coming managers, he would not be a radical choice, but at this stage it may be a tournament too early for the former Krylya Sovetov boss. Long-serving Rubin boss Kurban Berdyev is an outside shot, but his defensive style, Turkmen passport and introverted nature would all serve to place a wedge between him and the Russian public. For a wildcard, look no further than Fulham’s Martin Jol – striker Pavel Pogrebnyak called his club boss to take the reigns in Moscow following his side’s elimination, and after Advocaat and Hiddink before him, Jol would represent an intriguing selection as the third Dutchman in a row to take charge of the Russian team.
So Spalletti remains the favourite, and rightly so as his Zenit side continue to dismiss all comers on the domestic front and make unprecedented progression in the Champions League. However, whilst the Italian may bring a more youthful energy and attacking verve to the national side, as well as ‘Plan B’ which looked distinctly lacking in the dying moments of the Greece game, there is little reason to believe that the underlying problems affecting Russia can be solved by a simple change of manager.
Those problems are, of course, the players. Russia possesses a talented squad of players, of that there is no doubt. They also hold a theoretical advantage in that many of them play for the same club sides – CSKA and Zenit effectively combining to form the first team. However, the current squad is also an ageing one with the exception of a notable few, with many of the key players already the wrong side of 30. In defence, the Berezutsky twins are a year away from the magic number, Sergei Ignashevich is already 32, whilst Yuri Zhirkov is the younger of the two starting full backs at 28. The midfield hinges on a 34-year old Konstantin Zyryanov and his 30-year old clubmate Roman Shirokov, whilst up front Andrei Arshavin and the much-maligned Alexander Kerzhakov lead the line at 31 and 29 respectively. Should Russia qualify for Brazil 2014, many of these players will be a long way from the national squad. By the time the expanded European Championships take place in France two years later, more than half the team will have changed.
Necessarily then, supporters are beginning to look towards the next generation for their international future. Igor Akinfeev and bright spark Alan Dzagoev will no doubt lead the side, but the number of promising youngsters emerging at Russian clubs does not make for pleasant reading. Taras Burlak at Lokomotiv and Georgy Schennikov at CSKA give some hope at the back, whilst Maxim Kannunikov could be a future striker for both Zenit and Russia. However, the midfield trio of Zyryanov, Denisov and Shirokov, who rotate so effortlessly for club and country, could take some replacing. Georgy Gabulov and Oleg Shatov are both playmaking options having recently moving to Anzhi, and Lokomotiv’s Magomed Ozdoev made this year’s provisional squad, but there is a noticeable shortage of depth across the park and particularly in midfield.
Whether the lack of youngsters breaking through says more about the quality of the Russian youth systems or stubbornness of club bosses remains to be seen. However, in most cases a new manager needs new players to give new impetus to a national side floundering after disappointment. Whoever steps forward and takes charge, it will be far more interesting to see how lines up for his first game in charge.