It was little over a week ago that Europe bore witness to a scintillating display of attacking promise from a Russian side who were looking to prove that Euro 2008 was not merely a one off occasion. That tournament four years ago saw Russia leave the footballing vicinity swooning over their incisive, counter attacking style as Guus Hiddink’s team progressed to the semi final stage, before succumbing to eventual winners Spain in a fairly one sided encounter.
That expression of development was viewed as a potential stepping stone toward a ‘golden era’ of Russian football, thanks, in part, to the increased level of exportation of domestic based players to Western Europe. However Russia’s inability to qualify for the World Cup in 2010, accompanied by a steady migration of talent back to their homeland, shows that a previously bright new dawn never quite came to fruition. This summer’s European Championships were however seen as a means of putting aside the wrongs of two years ago and firmly putting them to rights.
Russia’s dismantling of the Czech Republic in the opening round of fixtures was, for many, an early tournament highlight – even as goals tumbled in throughout the competition. The quick, incisive pass and move style, that was so easy on the eye, and difficult to defend against, marked Russia as a potential dark horse to, once again, reach the latter stages of the competition. But, as so often is the case, time has served to dwindle the vividly burning embers of hope that engulfed the Russian camp into dying embers.
A point against the co-hosts Poland, a game in which the Poles thoroughly deserved to win, and a gutless defeat against Greece, who have somehow progressed despite few notions on defensive shape, have left Russian football fans demanding an in depth post mortem as to how their nation threw away such a commanding position.
Today’s disappointment harks back to the World Cup of 2002 where – after being drawn in what was perceived as being an easy group – Russia managed to begin in a positive manner, thanks to a 2-0 victory over Tunisia, only before wilting feebly in the following matches. Spartak Moscow’s legendary coach Oleg Romantsev was the man who fell afoul of expectation that year and Dick Advocaat will be forced to bear the brunt of the situation at present. Advocaat has found himself under a barrage of criticism since the final whistle in Warsaw with many placing the blame upon the experienced Dutch coach – who will now take up the role of PSV Eindhoven’s coach.
Russia’s victory over the Czech Republic ultimately served to strongly define the team’s positive points while merely masking the negatives that became clearer and clearer as the tournament progressed. The key aspect of Russia’s victory over the Czechs lay in their ability to work the ball quickly and efficiently. They were able to shift the ball rapidly from defensive positions to attacking ones seemingly at will, which exposed the Czech Republic’s weakness in dealing with such an approach.
However as Poland and Greece took it upon themselves to accommodate for Russia’s eye catching approach, the results and performances began to slip. Poland’s performance in Warsaw was one that deserved more than merely a point, as they harried and pressured Russia’s midfield to exhaustible levels. Russia were rendered hopeless as they struggled to summon a plan b, despite it becoming clear that their opponents had realised ways of prohibiting them from playing the football that they longed to play. This is an issue that must fall upon the shoulders of Advocaat whose dogged stubbornness left Russia banging on the defensive wall of their opponents in a similar manner time and time again.
Advocaat’s conservatism in his selection policy throughout the three group games, despite the gradually dwindling fortunes of the team, ultimately cost his side. Aleksandr Kerzhakov had a tournament that few will remember for anything positive, while the record he now unwittingly possesses thanks to his woeful finishing against the Czechs will likely remain in the record books for some time. Roman Pavlyuchenko’s superb cameo against the Czech Republic, replacing the confidence stricken Kerzhakov, secured Russia’s dominant victory in the opening game and it is surprising that Advocaat continued to refuse to utilise the Lokomotiv Moscow striker within the starting line up against Greece.
Kerzhakov’s form for Zenit last season cannot be questioned, as his 23 league goals for Zenit St Petersburg marked him out as one of the Premier League’s most prolific goal scorers; however his prominence on the international stage continues to be underwhelming. Goals against Uruguay and Italy in the run up to tournament seemed to point to a change in fortunes for a forward who had previously failed to score an international goal since 2010. Kerzhakov’s ineptitude in front of goal during the tournament, even prior to the Greece match, had resulted in him becoming a laughing stock of the tournament and Advocaat’s unwillingness to remove him from the firing line could possibly have cost the Russians a much needed point.
It was also startling to bear witness to the manner in which Russia’s players were seemingly sapped of energy as the hour mark came and went. This was evident against both Poland and Greece and you are left wondering as to how such an issue can occur at such an early stage in the tournament. Russia’s fitness coach, Raymond Verheijen, has been openly critical of the manner in which his side performed against Greece however the loss of impetus, due to the demise of fitness levels, must surely be an issue that can be placed at his door. Yes, many of the Russian players suffered due to the incredibly long nature of the transitional domestic season, however there can be few excuses that truly serve to justify the woeful fitness levels of the side.
Russia’s exit will surprise many and few in equal measures. The warning signs had been firmly there for all to see as the tournament progressed however no decisive action was taken to prevent the team’s deviation away from prosperity. Advocaat may now have turned his back on the Russian game for pastures new, however the Russian Football Union are left with a monumental couple of decisions to make – as they scour the game for a new coach and head of their own organisation.