Russian National Team: signs of progress towards 2018 World Cup

Despite losing 0-1 against Argentina at the Luzhniki and drawing 3-3 with Spain at the Stadium St. Petersburg, an optimistic aura seems to surround the Russian national team. It is now abundantly clear that under Stanislav Cherchesov, Sbornaya is finally starting to come together, play with an apparent identity, and most importantly, pick up results.

Eighteen months ago in France, Russia was a team devoid of an identity, packed with ageing stars of former glories in their twilight years. The squad contained six outfield players over the age of 30, including the then 36-year-old Sergei Ignashevich, 33-year-old Berezutsky twins and the 34-year-old Roman Shirokov, meanwhile then 20-year-old Aleksandr Golovin was the only player included under the age of 25. Leonid Slutsky, gentlemen and excellent club coach, attempted to pack in as many big names as possible. He opted against developing both a playing style and system designed to get the best out of the team and ignored the youth.

Due to this, many early markets expected Russia to fail spectacularly in the 2018 group stages. Just look at any FIFA World Cup betting 2018 and you’ll see how this has slowly changed over time. Odds for Russia to win the World Cup currently stand anywhere between 25/1 and 40/1 as of today, and on average they are the ninth-best odds despite being the lowest ranked side currently qualified for the finals at 65th. South Korea and Saudi Arabia are within five places above Russia, yet are rank outsiders; their best odds are 295/1 and 500/1 respectively. Of course, being hosts leads to a massive odds decrease in the market, however, just a day after the Confederations Cup knockout, Russia’s odds were as wide as 75/1 to 100/1, with many markets then expecting the national team to fail spectacularly in the 2018 group stages. There is a reason why there is a massive market shortfall on Russian odds to win.

Russia has played 17 games under Cherchesov, winning six, losing six, scoring 27 goals and conceding 24. On paper, this looks relatively mixed, with impressive victories such as the 3-0 destruction of Hungary, and a 4-2 defeat at the hands of South Korea coupled with disappointing losses such as a 2-1 loss against Qatar and a 2-0 defeat against Ivory Coast at the Krasnodar Stadium. However, as a whole, Russia’s performances are exponentially stronger, with a clear identity, team spirit and effective playing style all centred upon younger and more dynamic squads.

Since the aforementioned defeat to Ivory Coast, Russia has lost only three times from eleven games, all against the world’s elite; Portugal, Mexico (who are daunting in cup competitions) and Argentina. This includes 3-3 draws with both Spain and Belgium and five victories over differing sides ranging from club teams (that silly “hybrid friendly” with Dinamo) to the aforementioned victories over Hungary and Korea, both rated higher in the world rankings.

READ MORE: Sbornaya – Dinamo Moscow: Another RFU Farce

Igor Akinfeev, Aleksandr Golovin, Roman Zobnin and the recently naturalised Mário Fernandes were also absent from the matchday squad last night against a near full-strength Spain side, which impressively came from 2-0 down after another dodgy refereeing decision to claim an impressive 3-3 draw, and even looked like winning the game, inspired by Fedor Smolov and Aleksei Miranchuk’s equally riveting displays and the former’s explosive goal. The missing four aren’t just key players, but almost surefire starters for the World Cup. Experienced regular Aleksandr Samedov likewise missed out on a call-up due to injury, along with Kirill Panchenko, who many would’ve considered for selection if not for his nasty ACL injury. Andrei Lunev may be joining them on the sidelines after being stretchered off in the final moments of the game, who was on the receiving end of a knee-to-the-face from Spanish striker Rodrigo. Luckily, there is no serious damage as Lunev has claimed in hospital that he is fine after receiving a massive cut to the temple.

A very similar squad – albeit with Akinfeev and Fernandes was unlucky to lose against a star-studded Argentina squad led by Lionel Messi and Sergio Agüero. The latter’s late goal – the solitary in a 1-0 win for La Albiceleste – should not have been given, with Cristian Pavón clearly offside in the buildup. Yet, Russia proved that they can implement a plan to frustrate opponents, with Viktor Vasin and Georgi Dzhikiya particularly impressive. Error-prone Vasin – shown by Spain’s opener in St. Petersburg – can be a dominant presence at the back if he concentrates and anticipates danger fully for a whole 90 minutes. He was tasked with the daunting exercise of man-marking Lionel Messi but pulled it off with aplomb.

Even in the wake of the embarrassing early exit in the Confederations Cup, it was not the direct fault of a team in heavy transition and without key player Alan Dzagoev. RFN Editor-in-Chief Toke Theilade blamed “structural problems” and not the side itself. Many in the country realised at the time it was a squad in transition playing against some difficult teams. Both Mexico and Portugal are teams seeded alongside Sbornaya in Pot One for the 2018 World Cup, and are likewise daunting cup tournament performers; Mexico themselves have reached the Quarter Finals for six World Cup’s in a row, advancing beyond the group stages in seven of their last nine.

READ MORE: Editorial: Structural Problems are the Reasons for Russia’s Early Exit

The side is still very much a work in progress, but one which I will be excited to see play at a home World Cup in exactly seven months time. There are still signs of worry; the poor attack against Argentina, defensive concentration and positioning against Spain and injury worries will always hang over the head of key player Alan Dzagoev, but, finally, the squad is filled with exciting talents on the top of their game; Smolov, the Miranchuk twins, Dzagoev, Golovin, Mário Fernandes, Akinfeev, Lunev and even defenders Dzhikiya, Vasin and Fedor Kudryashov are forming a decent partnership in defence.

Still, the squad’s game management and ability to phase from a deep-lined defence into a swift counter needs work, and Russia tend to only score often when the opposition does, but there is still time. Cherchesov’s period of experimentation is over. It is clear he has his finals squad and tactics in mind and can work on it from here, which is exactly why the long-term injured figure of Zobnin was called-up for tactical work. It is a long road ahead for Sbornaya, but Stanislav Cherchesov is driving them the right way it seems.

Author: James Nickels

Born and raised in South Shields, the direct mid-point between Sunderland and Newcastle in North-East England during an era of sustained success and European football for the Magpies, while the Black Cats floundered in the lower divisions, so naturally I decided to support Sunderland. I’ve developed an interest in Russian football over the last decade or so, but it piqued while studying for my Masters’ Degree in Russian and Soviet History, and I’ve been hooked by Spartak Moscow ever since. Considers Eduard Streltsov the best of his generation, and a fond proponent of his repatriation.

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