In recent months there has been a stream of negativity regarding the performance of the Russian national team. Foreign fans taking delight in anything where they can poke fun at Russia. And negative domestic fans are mentally preparing themself for a bad showing at a home Confederations Cup and World Cup. Is the state of the team really that bad though?
Much of the criticism stems from a lackluster performance at Euro 2016. In their group they tied England which was a good accomplishment. Then lost to Slovakia by giving up two soft goals in a game they generally dominated. Then got embarrassed versus a Wales team who eventually advanced to the final four.
Not a good performance by any means but not quite a complete nightmare. Their group turned out to be stronger than expected especially because of Wales resurgence into a top team. Deeper than that though the Russian team was dealing with a variety of injuries which left them without top players like Denis Cheryshev and Alan Dzagoev. This also led to some lineup configurations that did not fit the players very well.
In the end this performance at Euro 2016 lead to some positive changes. The first was the dismissal of head coach Leonid Slutsky. Slutsky is generally well liked but is a very nervous guy and clearly did not want the stress and blame if the national team ends up having a bad World Cup. He also sealed his fate by being far too loyal to his own players. For example, he picked several CSKA players for the Euros squad while picking no players from Rostov fresh off an amazing run to qualify for Champions league.
This type of nepotism needed to be nipped in the bud now. The squad for the World Cup needs to be the absolute best players regardless of personal relationships and team affiliations. The other thing that became obvious was that it was time to put a few of the older players to pasture. It was clear that some of these older players, especially the defenders, should not be seen as part of the future World Cup team.
Currently with new coach Stanislav Cherchesov the team is still suffering from a rash of injuries. This is what is continuing to give the impression that the Russian national team is worse than it is.
Lets look to the future though. Who are some of the key players and what could the World Cup roster look like.
Fedor Smolov has established himself as the top Russian striker and leads the Russian Premier League in goals.
Denis Cherychev is one of the main keys for this team. Talented and has great intangibles but is oft injured. If he is healthy that would be huge.
Dmitry Poloz has been one of the reasons for Rostov becoming a top team. He is a great playmaker with a high motor.
Artem Dzyuba has people that love him and people that hate him. When hes on his game he is a real handful with his skill and 6’5” frame.
Another player with questionable heart is Kokorin. He has good skill though and hopefully he continues to mature over the next year.
Zenit midfielder/winger Oleg Shatov has good playmaking ability.
Alan Dzagoev is a very crafty player with a knack for scoring. He missed Euros with an injury.
Roman Neustadter obtained Russian citizenship and played at Euros for Russia as a defensive midfielder. Its also possible he could play a central defender role.
Denis Glushakov is a solid veteran defensive midfielder that is on track for a starting spot.
Ivan Novoseltsev is a likely starter at central defender. After helping Rostov become a Champions League team he moved onto Zenit.
20 year old CSKA midfielder Aleksandr Golovin is promising. Hopefully he continues to establish himself over the next year.
Brazilian national Mario Fernandes who plays for CSKA became a Russian citizen. He is a good defensive back who figures to be a starter.
The other starting defensive back could be Igor Smolnikov. A solid enough veteran player for Zenit.
A new foreign player that could be in the mix is Brazilian Joaozinho who received Russian citizenship this year. He was out of action a lot last year with a broken foot but this season has been quite good for Krasnodar.
There are many fans who are strongly against adding foreign players and don’t want to take jobs from the real Russians. As we get closer to the World Cup that attitude may change especially if injuries persist.
At goalie there is Igor Akinfeev the long time national team starter. I am hoping though that a promising younger goalie like Aleksandr Selikhov is able to beat him out for the starting spot. The 22 year old has seen his stock rise a lot in recent days.
Theres various other promising players in the mix such as Magomed Ozdoyev, Roman Zobnin, Aleksandr Yerokhin, Ilya Kutepov, Maksim Kanunnikov, Elmir Nabiullin etc that I could mention as well.
What the exact roster and lineup for the World Cup will be is impossible to say. A main task over the next year is deciding on who is going to be on the World Cup roster and what will be the best player configuration. Heres just one of many hypothetical lineups.
Cheryshev – Smolov/Dzyuba – Poloz/Kokorin
Dzagoev/Shatov – Glushakov – Neustadter
Fernandez – Novoseltsev – Kutepov? – Smolnikov
The main point of this article is to show that the Russian team put on the field for the World Cup will have little in common with the Euro 2016 team. Health of course will be a big determination of that. Beyond that though the older players will be phased out with younger players taking their spots.
If they are able to put a lineup such as this out there they could make it out of the World Cup group. If they don’t it would be a disappointment but not the end of the world. Theres really no expectation of them winning the World Cup unlike when Brazil hosted.
Russian football is generally on the right track and there looks to be a bigger commitment to developing youth football in Russia. Hosting a World Cup and having new stadiums will also be a big source of inspiration for Russian kids. Russia hosting a World Cup isn’t the culmination of a journey but more toward the beginning of a journey.
People will continue to bash the Russian national team over the next year but hopefully when game 1 of the World Cup starts they have a more healthy roster and make a good showing. I think they will.
Even bigger than football though is putting the spotlight on Russia and helping people of the world get to know Russia and dispel the misconceptions they have. This is even more important than a good performance by the team.