Russia fitness coach Raymond Verheijen hit the headlines earlier this week when he proclaimed that the sbornaya were "without doubt" the fittest and best prepared team at Euro 2012.
Verheijen was the man responsible for developing and fine-tuning Russia’s training programme prior to Poland and Ukraine, and his work appeared to be paying dividends when the Eastern Europeans thrashed Czech Republic 4-1 in their opening game of Group A.
However, Russia were brought back down to Earth in their second pool match as after taking the lead against Poland, the co-hosts dominated the second half to earn a 1-1 draw.
“Towards the end, I was very tired,” Russia captain Andrey Arshavin said at full time. “With 10 minutes to go, my strength was running out.”
Russia’s tiredness during that game was visible even to the least trained eye and, in reality, they seemed to fall off their usual counter-attacking pace not long after Poland’s 57th minute goal.
As such, it surprised no-one that both the Russian and western press focused on this in the aftermath of the game.
Sovetsky Sport columnist Vitaly Slavin bemoaned the sbornaya’s “worthless fitness”, Yevgeny Dzichkovsky of Sport Express noted “proof of fatigue” as Arshavin repeatedly gave the ball away and Dzagoev and Kerzhakov “didn’t get into the positions that they should”. The BBC’s Pat Nevin thought that Russia “ran out of gas completely in the last 20-25 minutes”.
One of the main emphases of the build-up to the Euros in Russia was placed on how the team were going to cope after a domestic season of unprecedented length and arduousness.
In a show of questionable wisdom, the Russian footballing authorities decided last year to change the season’s calendar to autumn–spring to fit with the rest of Europe, rather than the traditional March-November.
Russia's busy schedule
|18||Consecutive months since Russia's players had their last break.|
|29.4||Average age of Russia's Euro 2012 squad - the second oldest.|
|72||Number of matches Zyryanov would have played this season if Russia reach the semi-finals.|
|186||Combined total games this season for Denisov, Zyryanov and Shirokov.|
This meant a transitional season which lasted a gruelling 18 months from March 2011 to June 2012 and ended with the players playing on snow-ruined, muddy pitches – exactly the situation which the original calendar had aimed to avoid.
The season did contain a break during the main winter months, in which it is simply impossible to play, but those teams which compete in European competitions were not afforded such respite.
This means that most of Russia’s players have not had a proper rest from football for a year and a half and on top of having had to remain at peak fitness for such a long period, they have also played a very high number of games during it.
For example, the midfield trio of Igor Denisov, Konstantin Zyryanov and Roman Shirokov played 186 games between them over the last season, at an average of 62 games per player; a figure that would be considerably higher if Shirokov had not missed a number of games through injury.
What’s more, the fact that Russia are the second oldest team in the tournament – their starting XI against Poland had an average age of 29.4 – may well be having some effect on both their longevity in matches and recovery after them.
The fact that Russia also base their game around counter-attacks may play a part in this fatigue as well, though, and one would not expect them to suffer too much against Greece, who have not looked overly mobile so far.
But if they were struggling to cope with Poland’s ability on transition, a possible quarter-final against the swift-breaking forces of Germany may just push the ageing Russian legs too far, as their season’s game count goes up and up.
Indeed, looking optimistically even further, if the sbornaya was to progress to the semi-finals, one can only imagine how a 34-year-old Zyryanov, in what would be his 72nd match of the season, would cope with a potential matchup against the notoriously exhausting passing game of Spain.
With this in mind, Dick Advocaat will be rueing his team’s inability to secure qualification earlier by finishing off the game against Poland, as Saturday’s match with Greece would have presented an ideal opportunity to rest some weary legs.