A View from Belgium’s Opposition: Russia

Russia will be hoping for a great World Cup campaign to build upon before they host the tournament themselves in 2018. Drawn in Group H alongside Belgium, South Korea and Algeria you would suspect they will be chasing the round of sixteen as a minimum.

Russia topped Group F in qualifying where they beat out potential round of sixteen opponents Portugal and forced them into a play off. Israel, Azerbaijan, Northern Ireland and Luxembourg made up the rest of their group ensuring that Russia were virtually ensured of at least a top two finish.

We decided that the best option to give you the lowdown on Russia would be to ask an undisputed expert in the field and for that task we asked friend of BeNeFoot and writer of the More Than Arshavin blog on Russian football Rob Dillon.

How do you rate Russia’s chances at this World Cup and how does that differ from the general consensus of the population and their expectations, and what will the team be expecting to get? Group H is pretty open so surely last 16 will be a realistic target for Russia?

Rob Dillon: “Russia are a fairly rare example of where general consensus and fan expectation seem to meet up. There’s a lot of focus on 2018, when Russia of course host the tournament, and the transition to the new squad, and there’s also a lot of relief that the side have made it to Brazil, having missed out on both the last two tournaments, as well as France ’98.

Russia boss Fabio Capello is one of the game's great managers. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Russia boss Fabio Capello is one of the game’s great managers. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Equally, relief is mixed with expectation when considering that the current squad is more experienced and better prepared than that side, that they have Fabio Capello at the helm, and that they’ve performed rather well in qualifying. As you’re right to point out, Group H is open – probably one of the weakest in the competition, and with the side having beaten South Korea in a recent friendly, expectations are to qualify. However, the wider draw is less kind, and with Germany or Portugal likely to await them in the last 16, general expectations don’t go too far beyond that.”

A lot of people will know of Alan Dzagoev from CKSA Moscow but are they as important to Russia as we would expect or will the main threat be coming from somewhere else? Russia have drawn their whole squad from Russian domestic teams so tell us a little about the players we don’t see on a regular basis . What tactics can we expect from the squad to incoporate the best players in the squad to maximise their ability?

Rob Dillon: “Alan Dzagoev is the name that crops up every time a Russian is linked overseas, and the one pinpointed as a dangerman for the last couple of tournaments. Truth is, however, that at 23 he is at something at a crossroads, with his temperament occasionally getting him into trouble at club level, and Capello reluctant to start him for the national side. Talented as he is, expect him to appear in the final third of matches from the bench if Russia need a goal, rather than kicking off in his favoured spot behind the strikers.

The two biggest threats from Capello’s squad as are opposite ends of their careers. While Zenit’s Aleksandr Kerzhakov has led the line for the last decade, but the goalscoring burden now rests more heavily on another Aleksandr, Kokorin, the golden boy of Dinamo Moscow. He tends to play drifting between the traditional striker’s role and the left wing position, but has the pace and finishing skills to trouble any defence. He has five goals in 21 international appearances, but they’ve all come since the start of qualifying, and he is rapidly growing into the focal point of the team.

The other man to watch out for is currently subject of something of an injury scare. Roman Shirokov, the 32-year-old Zenit captain loaned out to Krasnodar after a row with Luciano Spalletti (before his sacking), has been a late bloomer, coming into his best form over the past three or four years and transforming club and country with his surging runs from central midfield, regular goals and decisive leadership. He too has a controversial streak – clashes with team-mates and fans a regular feature of his Zenit career – but he is too important for Capello to risk leaving out – he’ll captain the side in Brazil. However, he hasn’t played since 26th April thanks to an Achilles injury, and Russia will be desperate for him to recover in time. Without him, they lack real penetration through the centre, and that could prove devastating.

Others to note include Zenit playmaker Oleg Shatov – a youngster who is beginning to claim Dzagoev’s spot as his own, partly due to his versatility and ability to play wide – and Spartak’s Dmitri Kombarov, a flying full back equally at home on the left of midfield who has proved the only bright spot in a poor couple of years for the Moscow side.

As to tactics, expect to see a standard back four in front of Igor Akinfeev, probably comprising his CSKA team-mates Sergei Ignashevich and Vasili Berezutsky flanked by Kombarov on the left and either Anzhi’s Andrei Eshchenko or CSKA’s Georgi Shchennikov on the right. In midfield, the ideal line-up is an interchangeable triangle of Shirokov, fellow furore-starter Igor Denisov – a former national captain – and Denis Glushakov of Spartak, with Shirokov having the greater licence to get forward and make things happen. For the front three, Capello is likely to deploy Kokorin on the left with Kerzhakov at the focal point and linking play, with on the right the choice is between Shatov – who will sit more narrow and create – or Lokomotiv’s player of the year Aleksandr Samedov, a more orthodox winger who offers genuine width and crossing ability.

In terms of style, Russia are a Capello side. Expect no tiki-taka, one-touch magic, nor a side that will blast past opponents with physical strength. Defence has been Russia’s strength in qualification and they build from there. In recent friendlies, the struggle has been balancing the wide threat with the central one, and that will prove crucial if Russia are to make progress.”

Russia goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev will be looking to atone for his blunder against South Korea. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Russia goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev will be looking to atone for his blunder against South Korea. (Photo: Wikipedia)

How do you expect Russia to exploit Belgium knowing that their main weakness is their unnatural full backs and perhaps a lack of cover for them, as well as their short supply of out and out attackers – especially if Lukaku is injured?

Rob Dillon: “I would expect Samedov and Kokorin to start against Belgium – while Capello will be aware of their strength, he will see them as beatable and want to capitalise on the full back weaknesses. In many ways, it may help if Shirokov is out for this one – Russia naturally gravitate wider in his absence – but on balance you’d want him in the side every time. Another way for Russia to exploit the weakness would simply be to encourage their own full backs on – Kombarov needs no second invitation on the left, with the right perhaps held back a little to compensate for Samedov’s natural high starting position. If Russia can get in behind, Kerzhakov remains a quality poacher with aerial ability, and Kokorin is a composed finisher indeed.

At the other end, Russia’s worries lie in the fact that the centre backs are neither the youngest nor the quickest. If Lukaku is absent it will be a huge sigh of relief, but Belgium’s pace is something that will worry Capello and his side. My guess would be that someone like Denisov would be instructed to sit that bit deeper to try and break things up before they get going. A high line, which would often be used against a team lacking a focal point, is unplayable with Russia’s defence.”

How does Russia rate Belgium. There’s been a lot of interest in the nation in Europe due to the sheer amount of players playing in the top leagues. That said Belgium have their weaknesses that will hold them back from ultimate success but Group H are surely seeing them as the team to beat or do they consider themselves lucky they don’t have Germany or Spain to play. Also they must be happy to not have to face a South American team in a potentially tricky climate?

Rob Dillon: “There’s no doubt that Russia consider themselves lucky to be in Group H – as you point out, avoiding a South American side was a huge bonus given the conditions, and you would almost write off a game against Spain, Germany or Holland. Switzerland or Belgium were the ones Russia wanted, and they got one – top seeds are always difficult, but Belgium come without the aura of invincibility or weight of past successes that the other possible draws would have brought.

That said, there won’t be any taking the tie for granted. Belgium have held the dark horse label for so long now thanks to their latest golden generation, and the likes of Hazard, Courtois and Fellaini haven’t gone unnoticed in Russia, much like the rest of Europe. There’s also added interest thanks to the presence of two Zenit men in the squad in the form of Witsel and Lombaerts, so there’s an acknowledgement that it’ll be the biggest game of the group stage. Without wishing to disrespect Korea and Algeria, the game on 22nd June is probably going to decide who tops the group, and I expect it to be played as such.”

Our sincerest thanks go to Rob Dillon for the time and effort he put into his fantastic answers.

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