It is rarely helpful to assume too much from an international friendly, particularly a game which does not fall particularly close to a competitive fixture. English readers will be all too familiar with the tabloid assertions of World Cup glory following wins over strong opposition, and calling for the manager’s head if victory is not achieved. In Russia, the case for ignoring the most recent international fixture is indeed a strong one – with no competitive football for two months and the domestic season still a month away from resumption, the players selected by manager Fabio Capello will have been nowhere near their mid-season peak.
The same can be said of their opponents, an Icelandic side with players drawn from clubs as far apart in the footballing hierarchy as Knattspyrnufélag Reykjavíkur, the domestic side home to starting goalkeeper Hannes Halldórsson and Ajax, employees of start striker Kolbein Sigthórsson. Few of the Icelanders play their football in the same country, with those in Scandinavia operating on a different league calendar to their international colleagues. As with the Russian squad, fitness levels vary wildly at this stage of the year.
However, whilst friendlies and performances therein may not hold the key to any particularly shocking revelations, it would be unwise to bypass them completely. Russia’s 2-0 win, sealed by goals in each half from Roman Shirokov and Oleg Shatov, may not have turned up any long-term solutions to outstanding problems, nor has it thrust Capello’s men to the top of the contenders list for Brazil 2014, but it has raised an interesting point or two which were stumbled upon by the press in the run-up to the game itself.
Almost every Russian news outlet with a sports page declared that, perhaps understandably, Capello would choose to go with his reserves for the game against what are almost undoubtedly lesser opposition. Iceland are yet to qualify for a major international tournament, and are ranked just 89th in the FIFA rankings, a full 80 places below their opponents. Neutral ground in Marbella removed any advantage the underdogs may have taken from playing at home, and so logically Russia’s second string should have had little trouble dealing with their opponents.
With that in mind, the exclusions from the squad summoned by the Italian made a great deal of sense. Whilst Euro 2012 recall Marat Izmailov was missing on account of being in the middle of a league campaign with new club Porto, the decision to omit the likes of Andrei Arshavin and Pavel Pogrebnyak, both of whom are reaching the end of their international careers and neither of whom are enjoyed extended runs at their clubs, is entirely understandable from the perspective of a manager wishing to try out new players ahead of the year’s World Cup qualifiers.
It is confusing therefore, to gaze upon the line-up which took to the field in Spain. Of the back five, only full back and new Anzhi signing Andrei Eshchenko can really be counted as an unknown quantity at international level, picking up his fifth cap alongside stalwarts of the national team in Akinfeev, Berezutsky, Ignashevich and Anyukov. In midfield, the Zenit-heavy quintet of Zhirkov, Bystrov, Faizulin, Shirokov and captain Denisov boasted 165 caps between them prior to kick-off, whilst lone striker Alexander Kerzhakov is his country’s second highest goalscorer of all time. Not, as some would have you believe, a team burdened with inexperience on the international stage.
In the second half, substitutions did shake things up slightly – Kirill Nababkin and Fedor Smolov made just their second appearances for Russia after the break, whilst Oleg Shatov, whose goal sealed the victory, made his international debut. Whilst playmaker Alan Dzagoev sat on the bench, so did the uncapped Terek pairing of Igor Lebendeko and Oleg Ivanov, as well as one-cap Lokomotiv striker Maxim Grigorev. Dmitri Kombarov, Vladimir Gabulov and Denis Glushakov, the trio who did make it on to the pitch, have 36 caps between them.
One of the main reasons pointed out for Russia’s lack of success at Euro 2012 was that, despite a great continuity between the team of four years’ earlier, when Guus Hiddink’s men reached the final four, the prolonged international careers of a very select group of players has resulted in stagnation amongst the squad. Only the aforementioned Dzagoev has truly broken into the squad in the last half decade, and despite the likes of Arshavin and Pogrebnyak apparently falling out of Capello’s favour, there appears to be little in the way of new blood breaking into their place – Dinamo’s Alexander Kokorin perhaps the closest thing to a second international class striker in Russia’s arsenal.
What’s more, the somewhat cautious nature of the elite Russian footballer – that is, happy to stay at their country’s top clubs and potentially earn more than they could in another top European league – has led to a closed shop situation in which Capello’s gaze is restricted by the number of clubs he can realistically draw from. Of the eleven who started against Iceland, six play their trade with champions Zenit, three at CSKA, and two for Anzhi. Seven clubs were represented in the squad as a whole, and even that number is weighted by the capless benchwarmers – neither of the two Terek representatives have a cap, while Rubin’s pair have a single appearance each. Spartak Moscow, a traditional powerhouse of the Russian game, are left to count on Kombarov as their sole flagbearer.
Of course, this does not have to be a negative thing – Spain’s World Cup-winning side achieved success with a mixture of just two clubs who rarely see eye to eye – however as Russians refuse to try their luck abroad and young talent remains unprepared to make the step up to international level, it is not easy to see progress for the national side, at least in terms of personnel and playing style. All that is left to hope for is that the benefits of continuity outweigh the drawbacks of stagnation for long enough to get Russia to Brazil next year. After that, the future remains less than certain.