As 2013 draws to a close in the midst of Russia’s long winter break, now seems as good a time as any to look back over the previous 12 months and pick out the stories that dominated the headlines. In this post, we look at Fabio Capello’s national team, and the progress made over the last year.
As we reach December, there can be only a single criteria to determine whether or not Fabio Capello and his Russian outfit has met their goals. The draw for Brazil 2014 has been completed, the headlines written and the simulations played out hundred-fold over the last few weeks, and to the relief of those in Moscow, Makhachkala and Magadan, Russia are part of the equation. Mission accomplished.
What’s more, their group allows for a sense of cautious optimism. Faced with a possible group containing Brazil, Holland and the USA, to emerge with a line-up of Belgium – a top seed but one with little recent experience at major tournaments – Algeria, who are undoubtedly one of the weakest nations taking part in FIFA’s flagship tournament, and South Korea, who were beaten in a friendly as recently as November, there is cause to believe that Capello’s men could indeed emerge out of the group stage and into the knockout stage to go some way to making up for the embarrassment of missing out on South Africa in 2010.
To get there, Russia had a task which did not look overwhelmingly difficult, but still presented a challenge. Coming into 2013, Capello’s men boasted a perfect record in their qualifying group, with four clean sheets and four wins to their name, including a 1-0 win over Portugal – their main rivals in the pool which included such footballing giants as Luxembourg, Azerbaijan and Northern Ireland. Realistically, only the Israelites represented a problem, and a 4-0 romp in Tel Aviv seemed to have ended that theory.
For the most part, 2013 has been quiet in terms of international fixtures. The only matches in the first half of the year came in the form of friendlies, with the Russian Football Union setting up two very different opponents for Capello’s men. First up in February came the unusual choice of Iceland, but rather than face a trip north in the depths of winter, the two teams clashed in the Spanish resort of Marbella. Just 2,000 fans turned up at the local stadium to watch Roman Shirokov and the promising Oleg Shatov fire the Russians to a 2-0 win, a result which did little but confirm the then-Anzhi man’s undoubted talent and Shirokov’s indispensable nature in the team.
A month later, and a much bigger test presented itself in the form of Brazil, the five-time World Cup winners, upcoming hosts and side which would go to win the Confederations Cup in such an emphatic fashion over the summer. Again, neither side was allowed home advantage, but the game took on a completely different complexion to the Iceland friendly. Rather than tucked away on a Spanish beach, the most famous international team in football took on Russia at Stamford Bridge, the RFU no doubt relying on the goodwill of Chelsea supremo Roman Abramovich for the privilege. In came 35,000+ spectators, and Abramovich almost saw a famous win, Shirokov’s goal cancelled out only in the dying moments as Fred broke Russian hearts. A 1-1 draw on foreign soil against one of the World Cup favourites – more optimism, particularly with Portugal on the horizon as the qualifiers returned.
And so, six months later in Benfica’s Stadium of Light, doubt re-entered the Russian mindset. In a reversal of the two sides’ previous meeting, it was Portugal who scored earlier, and remained largely comfortable as Capello’s men failed to break the hosts down. Poor fortune came into things – Russia were forced into two injury substitutions before half time – but when the final throw of the dice proved to be Fedor Smolov, the critics were quick to reach Capello.
At the time, Russia still had a cushion at the top of the group, and Portugal are not a side known for their consistency. However, in Smolov the media has fashioned for itself a stick to beat the Italian with, as well as highlighting the apparent lack of striking options for the national side. Two months later, the Dinamo former – who was yet to score in the calendar year – was left out of the squad for the trip to Northern Ireland, which served as the one match every campaign in which Windsor Park turns up an upset. In a feat they almost repeated against the Portuguese, only to lose to Luxembourg and the Azeris, the underdogs outpassed the Russians in a 1-0 win, limiting the visitors’ chances and handing them a potential hammer blow on the qualification path.
Thankfully for Capello and his men, they had the run of fixtures and luck on their side. While the Portuguese dropped points at home to Northern Ireland and twice blew leads against Israel, Russia’s run-in saw them cruise past Luxembourg home and away either side of a thoroughly professional performance at home to Israel which saw Denis Glushakov stake his claim for a starting berth. As Russia romped to a 4-0 win over Luxembourg at home, Portugal’s Rui Patricio gifted Eden Ben Banat an 85th minute equaliser in Lisbon, meaning Capello’s side needed just a single point to go through in Azerbaijan. Shirokov did the honours, a late equaliser meant nothing, and Russia had done it.
Of course, the hard work starts now in many respects, as evidenced by two friendlies held in the heat of Dubai. In a friendly double-header watched by a combined crowd of less than 10,000, Alexander Samedov’s goal was quickly cancelled out in 1-1 draw with Serbia, before Smolov finally found the net in a 2-1 win over World Cup opponents-to-be South Korea. There will be more warm-up matches before the big kick-off itself, but nothing is yet confirmed.
In terms of the squad, Capello has benefited from a number of players breaking into the national team set-up who had not appeared on predecessor Dick Advocaat’s radar. In goal, Yuri Lodygin has supplanted Vyacheslav Malafeev at Zenit and appears a genuine rival to Igor Akinfeev, whilst the likes of Igor Smolnikov, Vladimir Granat, Alexei Kozlov and the young pair of Taras Burlak and Vitali Dyakov have emerged to keep the old guard of Ignashevich, Anyukov and the Berezutski twins on their toes.
Elsewhere, central midfield now presents a multitude of options to the Italian tactician. Shirokov is the undoubted lynchpin of the Russian side, but to complete the central triangle Capello must choose between the likes of former captain Igor Denisov, manager’s favourite Victor Faizulin, the aforementioned Glushakov, along with players of the calibre of Dmitri Torbinski, Dmitir tarasov and Magomed Ozdoev on the fringes of the squad. Attacking from the flanks, even Andrei Arshavin appears to be playing himself back into contentions, while Shatov, new Zenit acquisition Alexander Ryazantsev, recent revelation Samedov, and rising star Dmitri Cheryshev can all play a role, with Alexander Kokorin also featuring as part of front three from the left.
That leaves the problem position of the central striker, and there is no doubt of Russia’s weak spot. Alexander Kerzhakov is a talented striker who lives and dies by confidence, and varies wildly from feared poacher to laughing stock depending on his form. Behind him, Kokorin is preferred from a wide position, and more often than not Capello’s preferred third option is none other than Smolov, who at 23 has made just 66 top flight appearances, netting just three goals in the process. His form in the under-21s – more than a goal every other game – offers some hope, but at the moment he has a lot of work to do to justify his ticket to Brazil.
The man who most would argue should be in position is Artem Dzyuba, the Spartak forward derided by many as something of a blunt object whose form has been revitalised by a loan to unfashionable Rostov. A return of 12 goals in 17 games puts him at the top of the Premier League’s scoring charts, and even produced laughable reports suggesting a move to Barcelona. No such move will take place in this reality, but Dzyuba has shown even his fiercest critics that his abilities extend beyond that of a moving target to aim crosses towards.
In conclusion then, 2013 has to be labelled a success for the simple fact that Russia will be in Brazil, and indeed the nature of the performances against Brazil and Israel in particular offer much to be hopeful for. Capello has instilled a professionalism and lack of complacency in the squad which has often been missing – see Euro 2012, World Cup 2010 qualifying – and an emergence of a new core of defensive and midfield talent will make competition for places a little less predictable than in the past. However, the squad is by no means perfect – Smolov vs Dzyuba remains an open debate, options up front are weak compared to other nations, and there have been moments – Northern Ireland away, late on in Baku – where securing victory against weaker opposition has been impossible for Russia to achieve.
Of course, there will be very little weak opposition at the World Cup, so Capello will be largely untroubled . However, with 2018 drawing nearer and the home crowds expectant, the question on everyone’s minds is just how far can Russia go in Brazil? The answer seems straightforward. Emerge as group winners ahead of Belgium and Korea, and face a likely clash with Portugal which, while tough, has been proven to be winnable. Beyond that, a probably quarter-final of Argentina looks a step too far, but if the French or Swiss can provide an upset then there is no reason that Russia could not do the same to them – looking ahead to the final four is simply too speculative. However, finishing as runners-up is likely to pit Russia against the Germans in round two, which is not likely to end well. Nevertheless, win that tie, and the draw opens up before Capello’s men. This blogger’s prediction? A second round knockout, and a promising start to 2018 preparations.