The last time the Russian national team played overseas, it signalled the end of an era. The Dutch revolution in Russian football, started by Guus Hiddink and continued by his successor Dick Advocaat, a process which resulted in that memorable run to the semi finals of Euro 2008, ended in disappointment and despair. Georgios Karagounis scored the goal which eliminated the Russians from the 2012 edition of the tournament, and all eyes turned to the future with a mix of hope and apprehension.
The apprehension was well founded, and not entirely removed with the appointment of Fabio Capello as the new man in charge. The Italian veteran was not known for his tactical adaptability during his time with England, and with the country’s fallen hero Andrei Arshavin backing the new manager before he was formally appointed, rumours that the new man would fail to bring a new broom were not without foundation.
Capello’s first game in charge provoked mixed reactions, a 1-1 draw with an Ivorian side also looking to rebound from continental disappointment, losing a penalty shoot-out to Zambia in the final of the African Cup of Nations at the beginning of the year. Alan Dzagoev, Russia’s brightest hope for both present and future, got the goal which was cancelled out by Max Gradel’s strike, and the absence of any attacking penetration was flagged up again.
The real start of Capello’s reign would not be against the African side however, but in the same Cherkizovo stadium almost a month later against Northern Ireland. It would mark the start of the qualification process for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, with Russia particularly keen to reach the finals – automatic qualifications as hosts four years later would undoubtedly be placed under scrutiny without a berth in the 2014 tournament.
It was the squad announcement itself which caused some controversy, and not only for the players involved. The major talking point was the logical omission of Arshavin – the former captain’s comments after their Euro 2012 exit alienated the fans, who booed him against Ivory Coast, and a lack of playing time at Arsenal gave Capello the perfect opportunity to replace him in the side. An injury to Yuri Zhirkov and the exclusion of Reading striker Pavel Pogrebnyak completed the absences, whilst Zenit’s tireless Igor Denisov was a well-received choice as captain.
Capello’s manner in the press conference drew more attention however. Replying to questions of team selection by simply announcing Dmiti Kombarov as Zhirkov’s replacement at left back, he then explained his decision not to replace the injured Artem Dzyuba by dismissing Northern Ireland as opponents. The somewhat laboured 2-0 win which followed may have vindicated him in terms of result, but the performance against a team which would go on to drop points at home to Luxembourg was far from complete.
With the Russian public unable to praise or chastise Capello due to the dull nature of the expected win, all eyes then turned to Israel, the site of previous Russian footballing shocks and where a much sterner test was to be anticipated. With Dzagoev on the bench, the likes of Alexander Kokorin and Denis Glushakov had the chance to step up their calls for regular starts, and the team’s opening in Ramat Gan could not have been more spectacular.
In just the 7th minute it was a villain who became a hero, the much-maligned Alexander Kerzhakov helping erase the memories of a shocking personal campaign at Euro 2012 with a perfectly-flighted free kick beyond Dudu Aouate. Less than a quarter of the way through the match it became 2-0, Vladimir Bystrov involved in a tangle of bodies in the penalty area which allowed Kokorin to poke home his first international goal. Bystrov left the field shortly afterwards as the first of three forced changes for Capello, but they did little to stem the Russian tide.
The third was a goal made in St Petersburg, again highlighting the national team’s reliance on the champions. Captain Denisov chipped a ball to the rising star of the city, Victor Faizulin, and his ball was cross perfectly for Kerzhakov to steer home for his second. Faizulin himself would get on the scoresheet late on to continue his impressive form at both domestic and international level, and the 4-0 scoreline could have been more comfortable still.
With six points from two games and a convincing away win under their belts, Fabio Capello’s Russia are slowly convincing the doubters that they can provide a threat to Portugal’s perceived dominance of their qualifying group. With the next round of qualifiers seeing the Portuguese welcomed to Moscow, their greatest test is yet to come.
However, whilst the viability of Capello as a long term manager must be questioned, there are plenty of signs to show that the immediate future is in safe hands. With an in-form Kerzhakov firing once more, a manager willing to drop a forlorn Arshavin, and a squad bound tightly by club level chemistry, there is little reason for Russia not to challenge Portugal for the automatic qualification spot. The question of new blood remains unanswered, but Russia’s veterans seem, for the time being at least, to be back with a point to prove.