Russia – a side radically different from the one that dominated the world stage as the USSR in decades gone.
No longer are they the side that lifted the European Championships and made the semi-finals of the World Cup back in the 1960s. With the Euros being their last real competitive outing before the world turns its eyes onto them as hosts of the 2017 Confederations Cup and 2018 World Cup, Russia may only be able to fly the dark horse flag one last time before things start getting serious.
Russia secured their spot in France by finishing second in Group G, eight points behind group winners Austria. Russia ended the qualification process with six wins, two draws and two losses. The only times the Russians failed to gain any points were in two 1-0 losses to Austria.
While Russia enjoyed some easy wins against Lichetenstein, the campaign was far from a walk in the park. Former England manager Fabio Capello was sacked from the position six matches into the campaign, where Russia failed to get firing, including a shock 1-1 draw in Moscow to minnows Moldova and less than convincing performances against Sweden and Austria.
Russia have only come into their own in the last 20 years in the European Championships due to their participation in the USSR and CIS until 1992. As part of the USSR, Russia took home the championship back in 1960 and finished no lower than fourth between 1960 and 1972, making three finals during that time. One more appearance for the USSR followed in 1988, where they went down to a Marco van Basten-inspired Netherlands side in the final.
Since reforming and playing as Russia, their European record has been less than impressive. Three group stage exits in 1996, 2004 and 2012 have set the scene for Russian fans as to what to expect, but a run to the semi-finals in 2008 provided a glimmer of hope as to what Russia could achieve if things go their way.
Russia’s strength comes in their experience. The Russian squad has a combined 734 caps between them, an average of just under 32 caps per player. Of particular note are goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev (CSKA Moscow, 86 caps) and defender Sergei Ignashevich (CSKA Moscow, 115 caps) who will be expected to help guide the side through the tougher matches.
Russia will also be hoping their defence will pay dividends when they line up for the Championships. Having only conceded one goal in the qualification process since Slutsky took the helm, Russia’s defence could be a deciding factor as to how long they stay in France.
Russia has a huge weakness in the age of their squad. The majority of their first choice defenders are over or nearing 30 and the same can be said for the midfield. Whether this will come back to bite them against younger, quicker sides remains to be seen.
Another potential weakness for the Russians is the domestic strength of the squad. Midfielder Roman Neustädter (Schalke 04) is the only player in the squad who does not grace the Russian domestic leagues and while this may provide them some tactical surprise, it could also hurt them when they come up against the likes of England and Wales.
Predicted Finish – Round of 16 Exit
Russia have enough quality about them to get out of the group, especially with the new third place pass UEFA is offering this year. While this is far from the best Russian side to grace the European Championships, they still have that dark horse feel about them and with a good result against England or Wales, Russia might just do enough to secure a top two spot in the group.