Russia has enjoyed varied degrees of success since Guus Hiddink took the side to a third place finish at Euro 2008. Dreary football and failure to qualify for one of the last three tournaments in the years that followed meant that Russian football was struggling to comprehend it’s failure after witnessing some of it’s best performances.
The appointment of a new domestically respected manager and a strong finish to qualifying has revived expectations back home. The man in charge though is not so confident and has put an air of limitation on what his side can achieve.
Leonid Slutski answered the call to take the reins of the national team after the sacking of the world’s highest paid international coach, Fabio Capello. Russia went on to win their remaining four group games and finish second in qualifying Group G, albeit a massive eight points behind Austria
At Euro 2016 Russia have been drawn into Group B alongside England, Wales and Slovakia. Under Slutsky, a relatively young coach, the side the side has been galvanized into demonstrating a string of impressive performances. Russia seem a lot more comfortable with ‘one of their own’ in charge as Slutsky has managed to improve the team without making any changes to the line up from Capello’s reign.
Slutsky has also reinvigorated the fans after a pessimistic period under Fabio Capello. With the Italian in charge Russia effectively went backwards. In 2010 they failed to qualify for the World Cup bringing major disappointment and disillusionment to the sport. However, failure in that sense alone was not enough to remove Capello.
What really tied the noose around Capello’s neck was the fact that in qualification for Euro 2016, aside from a 4-0 win over lowly Liechtenstein (aided by two own goals and a penalty) and a technical victory in Montenegro (awarded after crowd trouble stopped play in Podgorica) Russia had not won a competitive fixture in 10 attempts dating back to before the 2014 World Cup.
This prompted the Football Union of Russia (FUR) to dismiss Capello and start looking for a new manager. The only candidate acceptable was Leonid Slutsky. He was appointed when the 45-year-old CSKA coach managed to strike a deal with FUR to allow him to juggle both domestic and international duties. In the new role Slutsky carries the dubious title of ‘Interim Manager’ but has still proved to be a hit.
The Russia boss’ popularity was given a further boost after qualifying for Euro 2016. Not that his reputation needed it. With CSKA he has so far won The Russian Premier League, The Russian Cup and The Russian Super Cup twice each. He has also managed CSKA in the Champions League
His favoritism by the fans is further rooted from the understanding that he knows the players, the domestic league and the culture and expectations of the country, much more than Capello ever did, or could. It seems that Russia, like many other nations, could not get used to having a so-called foreigner in charge of the national team.
Within the Russian ranks there are players who could make an impact at Euro 2016. Zenit St. Petersburg forwards Artem Dzyuba and Alexander Kokorin could be a potent source of goals. While in defense the team can rely on the experience of Igo Akinfeev in goal as well as Igor Smolnikov and Sergei Ignashevich.
Many of the squad have played under Slutsky with CSKA Mosocw giving international duty a familiar atmosphere to club football for some of the players. Among them is key midfielder Alan Dzagoev. Weeks before the tournament however the side were given a set back when it emerged the key playmaker had been ruled out of Euro 2016 through injury. For Slutsky’s tactics that was a particularly crushing blow as at club level it has been obvious for years that he relies on the midfielder to supply his forwards.
As Euro 2016 appears over the horizon the young coach is tentative to say how successful Russia could be at the tournament in France. “We are not the tournament favorites,” said Slutsky. “To begin with, we need to get out of our group. If we manage to, we will try to play each knockout match with the intention of winning.
“I think the French national team is the favorite. First, they are the tournament’s hosts. Second, they have a very powerful team. Each lineup has first-class players. We saw this during the friendly at the Stade de France. I would also not forget the national teams of Spain, Germany, Belgium and Italy.”
After the team’s recent 4-2 defeat in a friendly match in Paris, Artem Dzyuba, who was Russia’s leading scorer in qualifying, believes that another defeat would be forthcoming should they meet one of the tournament heavyweights at Euro 2016.
He told Nash Futbol TV that the Russian players had “learned a lot” from the game and also has his doubts about how well his country will perform at Euro 2016.
“Maybe they were a bit faster, a bit more skillful, but we gave them a game,” he said. “After we hammered Italy on the way to Euro 2012, everyone was shouting about how we could beat anyone. Now we understand that we’re not going there as favorites, but we could be a strong outsider.”
Being an outsider has never done Russia any harm in the past, a tag that rekindles memories of Euro 2008. Russia crept into the 2008 finals under the radar when a famous win over England was combined with some stuttering performances in places such as Israel during qualification dubbing them too inconsistent. Guus Hiddink’s squad mange to upset the odds and gatecrash the semi-finals in electrifying fashion which caused the likes of Andrey Arshavin, Roman Pavlyuchenko, and Yuri Zhirkov to earn high-profile moves to the Premier League.
While realism looms large over the Russia squad in preparations for Euro 2016, Slutsky has no doubts that the 2008 team was “the strongest national team in contemporary Russian history.”
Compared to 2008, Russia’s Euro 2016 squad for boasts more of a collective mentality which possesses a wealth of experience from previous tournaments. The level of Russian football has risen since 2008 making it possible for the squad in France to be made up of players from CSKA Moscow and Zenit St Petersburg. Sides who have frequently competed on the European club stage.
Russia begins their Euro 2016 campaign against England on June 11 against England in Marseille.