(Over the next month or so, we’re going to be doing previews for all 32 teams participating in the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Yes, all 32 teams. We’ll make you laugh, cry, get mad and perhaps question why you read us in the first place. We hope you enjoy the product nonetheless)
Fabio Capello’s Russia are in the World Cup for the first time since 2002. And lucky for manager and squad, Russia have been drawn into a relatively weak group. Belgium are the heavy favourites, but neither Algeria nor South Korea pose a great threat to the Russians. Capello’s side, even without dynamic midfielder and captain Roman Shirokov (out for the tournament due to a knee injury), have a leg up on second place, and I’ll talk about why below.
Goalkeepers: Igor Akinfeev (CSKA Moscow), Yuri Lodygin (Zenit), Sergey Ryzhikov (Rubin Kazan)
Defenders: Aleksei Kozlov (Dynamo Moscow), Georgi Schennikov (CSKA Moscow), Sergei Ignashevich (CSKA Moscow), Andrey Semyonov (Terek Grozny), Vladimir Granat (Dynamo Moscow), Vasili Berezutski (CSKA Moscow), Andrey Yeshchenko (Anzhi Makhachkala), Dmitri Kombarov (Spartak Moscow)
Midfielders: Igor Denisov (captain, Dynamo Moscow), Denis Glushakov (Spartak Moscow), Alan Dzagoev (CSKA Moscow), Pavel Mogilevets (Rubin Kazan), Oleg Shatov (Zenit), Yuri Zhirkov (Dynamo Moscow), Aleksandr Samedov (Lokomotiv Moscow), Viktor Fayzulin (Zenit), Aleksei Ionov (Dynamo Moscow)
Forwards: Maksim Kanunnikov (Rubin Kazan), Aleksandr Kokorin (Dynamo Moscow), Aleksandr Kerzhakov (Zenit)
Manager: Fabio Capello
2010 refresher: Russia did not qualify for South Africa. But it made up for that by stifling its 2014 qualifying group, running up a 7-1-2 record and winning Group F, conceding only five times in the process.
Russia’s strength is at the back. Igor Akinfeev stands in goal for the maroon and gold; he was the Russian Premier League’s Player of the Year in 2013. Sergei Ignashevich and Vasili Berezutski have made a combined 175 appearances for their country, and both are versatile backs, with experience at centre-back, right-back, and even in the midfield. Dmitri Kombarov is attack-minded from the left-back position; he is known for great pace and presents a threat from set pieces.
Up front, Russia have the two Aleksandrs: Kerzhakov and Kokorin. The former was once somewhat of a commodity in Europe; he played at Sevilla from 2006 through 2008, at one point beingtracked by Spurs, Manchester United, and PSG. And with two more goals, he will become his country’s all-time leading scorer. The latter’s stock is rising, much like Kerzhakov’s did nearly a decade ago. He’s scored 20 goals over 44 league games the past two seasons, and Dynamo Moscow think highly enough of him to have inserted a €19 million release clause into his contract.
Fabio Capello managed England at the 2010 World Cup, and he is now entering his second full year in charge of Russia. It is thanks to his staunch defensive tactics that Russia romped through qualifying and are participating in its first World Cup since 2002 Korea/Japan. However, as mentioned earlier, the loss of midfielder and captain Roman Shirokov may lead Capello to make some alterations.
Expect to see Russia play a 4-3-3 in Brazil (some call it a 4-1-4-1), with Kombarov bombing forward from the left, and Ignashevich acting as sweeper in front of Akinfeev. Denisov, the new captain, will be the holding mid, but the midfield in general will lack creativity with Shirokov out. Up top, the two Aleksandrs will provide the goalscoring. Look for Kokorin in particular to do some damage; a strong display in Brazil could capture the attention of bigger European clubs.
Russia are very well-organized at the back and difficult to break down, and that should be sufficient to send them through to the competition’s knockout phase. But the lack of playmaking ability from the midfield will cause problems against likely round of 16 opponent Germany. Big picture, however: Russia have a great chance to escape the group stage for the first time since it was the Soviet Union, and that may make the Capello investment worthwhile (in the Russian Football Union’s eyes, at the very least). Furthermore, the better Russia do in Brazil (and/or in France at Euro 2016), the more attention it will receive ahead of the 2018 World Cup–which it hosts and has, thus, already qualified for. All told, this is the most important World Cup for Russia since 1970.