A lot of ink has been spilled on the future of Russia’s national team since Dick Advocaat’s squad crashed out of Euro 2012. An eight-match unbeaten streak for the senior team with Fabio Capello at the helm has put Russia in excellent position to qualify for Brazil 2014, but major questions remain, particularly in the junior ranks. Despite Capello’s willingness to call up a much broader selection of players – provincial clubs like Terek, Kuban, Rubin and Anzhi have seen a jump in national team invites in the last year – the starting XI has hardly been touched.
Sure, there have been gradual adjustments to the watershed 2008 squad that upset Holland in the Euro quarterfinals, but the defense remains nearly the same – Akinfeev in goal, Anyukov, V. Berezutski, Ignashevich on the back line – while the rest of the squad isn’t much younger. The Zenit midfield trio of Denisov, Shirokov and Fayzulin, likely to start on Friday vs Portugal, are 29, 31 and 27, respectively. Up front, Bystrov, Zhirkov and Kerzhakov are even older – 29, 29 and 30.
Dzagoev and Kokorin, both 22, are the two bright spots in Russia’s future, but they are the only two players to have featured in an official match that will also be under 30 come 2018. Dmitri Kombarov and Andrei Eschenko, two left backs (though Kombarov can play in the midfield, as well) are more recent additions to the squad, but at 26 and 29, only Kombarov is likely to factor in 2018. 27-year-old goalie Igor Akinfeev and Viktor Fayzulin will be there, too, barring injury, along with super sub midfielder Denis Glushakov, but that’s the extent of Russia’s U-27 talent with national team experience.
Goalie Akinfeev, left back Kombarov, centre midfielders Fayzulin and Glushakov and attacking midfielders Dzagoev and Kokorin… Replacements for centre backs Sergei Ignashevich and Vasili Berezutski, right back Anyukov, holding midfielder Igor Denisov and forward Kerzhakov will have to be found in the coming years, as well as some much-needed depth.
That’s why the 2013 European Under-21 Championships have been so eagerly awaited (or dreaded, depending on your outlook) in Russia. The 2018 generation, as some call it, is slotted in the group of death Spain, Holland and Germany.
Unfortunately, last night’s 1-0 loss to Spain wasn’t a surprise, and only reinforced the looming challenge for Russia in rebuilding the national team. Spain had its way in Jerusalem, holding 78% possession and obliterating the Russians in every imaginable statistical category: shots (on target) – 17 (3) vs 1 (0); corners – 8 vs 0; crosses – 30 vs 3; passing accuracy – 91% vs 58%; fouls (yellows) – 8 (0) vs 19 (3). Pavel Yakovlev, a 22-year-old Spartak forward, had Russia’s one dangerous moment in the 38th minute, catching Spanish keeper David de Gea by surprise from distance, but his effort went just wide. Otherwise, Nikolay Pisarev’s squad crowded its own end of the field, resilient but not resilient enough, as Spain’s Alvaro Morato headed in Thiago’s perfectly placed cross in the 81st minute for the match winner.
To be fair, four key players were missing: Alan Dzagoev and Fedor Smolov, currently with the national team in Portugal, and Aleksandr Kokorin and Arseniy Logashov, both out with injuries. Dzagoev, of course, didn’t even play with juniors during qualifying, while Kokorin moved up to the senior team in early 2012.
Logashov, who’s earned significant playing time at Anzhi and senior team call-ups of his own, could be Russia’s future starting right back. Pisarev labeled his injury the biggest blow to the squad in the run-up. Logashov is often reluctant to push forward on offense, but he’s a smart, athletic player and just 21 years old, with tremendous potential for improvement.
Anzhi teammate Fedor Smolov will fly to Israel immediately following tonight’s WC qualifier, along with Alan Dzagoev. Smolov was a leader during Euro 2013 qualifying, bagging seven goals in nine appearances, but he has struggled to make an impact in Dagestan, scoring just once this season, way back in August against Vitesse in Europa League qualifying. In the absence of Kokorin, Smolov will need to be sensational, if Russia is to have any chance against Holland and Germany and advance out of the group.
Of the players already in Israel, another Anzhi youngster, midfielder Oleg Shatov, and the aforementioned Yakovlev are worth keeping an eye on up front. At the back, where most of the action took place, Georgi Schennikov (CSKA), Nikita Chicherin (Dinamo), Taras Burlak (Lokomotiv) and Ibragim Tsallagov (Krylia Sovetov), played decently. They’re each on the fringes of the senior team and, with the exception of Tsallagov, saw significant time at the club level all season.
Especially when you exclude Dzagoev and Kokorin, the outlook beyond the back line appears grim. Shatov, Smolov and Yakovlev could develop into superstars, but they’re just as likely to fade into the woodwork.
That lack of depth is precisely why Fabio Capello, brought to Russian on an enormous annual salary, has been so reluctant to experiment. He understands that his job is to deliver a World Cup berth in 2014, and, hopefully, progression to the knockout stages. Beyond next summer, though, it all gets much more complicated, with full attention focused on developing a competitive side for the first-ever Russian World Cup.
In the best-case scenario, Capello’s short-term gamble will pay off and the Russians will reach the quarterfinals or better in Brazil, stirring enormous excitement at home, much like the Euro euphoria of 2008. With some of the top talents from this U-21 squad already along for the ride at the World Cup – Yakovlev, Smolov, Shatov, Logashov, Schennikov (again, not counting Kokorin and Dzagoev) – Russia will completely remake its squad during Euro 2016 qualifying, giving itself four years to fine-tune for 2018 and develop a core of 26-28-year-old players, led by the unflappable Igor Akinfeev in goal and two destructive attacking midfielders in Aleksandr Kokorin and Alan Dzagoev. Young players, shockingly, will finally be nurtured and brought up through the ranks wisely, with most Premier League clubs fielding teams in the lower divisions to season their academy boys. Improved infrastructure throughout the game, meanwhile, will make it possible to develop three or four times the number of players at the youth level.
Worst case, Russia chokes once again – either in spectacular fashion to miss the 2014 World Cup entirely or by exiting quietly in the group stage. Moving forward, very little young talent will develop into national team material material, leaving a patchwork back line and unbalanced offense, particularly due to the lack of options on the right wing and up front. While Russia and Ukraine combine to create United Championship in 2015, boosting TV ratings, revenues and attendance, homegrown players are left out in the cold and the Russian national team enters a dark age, in which qualifying for Euro is hailed as a major achievement and World Cup dreams are left behind.
Reality, of course, will fall somewhere in the middle, though I’m inclined to think it will favor the positive end of the spectrum. The Russian Premier League is improving from year to year, with 10 competitive clubs competing for Europa League places where there were maybe six or seven a few years back. While there’s a risk that foreign talent will overrun the league (or proposed United Championship), club academies are also on the upswing and with more competitive clubs and top-notch coaches out there these days, there are more opportunities for Russian youngsters to compete at the highest level, surrounded by professionals.
It’s truly a glass half full/glass half empty scenario, but with the World Cup still five years away, I’m optimistic that Russia, despite its glaring needs, is on the right track. Best of all, the journey should be immensely entertaining. Capello has molded a hard-nosed, defensive squad with the present generation, which can essentially guarantee progression to Brazil with a win over Portugal tonight. Meanwhile, Russia’s future stars are developing, progressing, pushing for the breakthrough that will vault them onto the national stage. I can’t wait to find out who they are.
Author: Andy Shenk
I discovered football when my family moved to Russia in the early 2000′s. I’ll never forget sprinting around my house after Russia qualified for Euro 2008, belting out the Russian national anthem. Since 2011, I’ve supported Anzhi in all its inspiring glory and heartbreaking dysfunction. Also Andrei Eschenko’s #1 American fan.