The headlines of the Russian press on Sunday tell a story in themselves.
“A Dead Team” said Sovetsky Sport. “It’s a disgrace” was Gazeta.ru’s take, while Sport Express simply wrote “‘Favourites’…”.
How did it come to this?
Expectations amongst most pundits were not high for Russia coming into the tournament. They had stuttered through qualifying and were sticking with an ageing group of players that had failed even to qualify for the 2010 World Cup and whose bright patches were overshadowed by consistent mediocrity.
This continued into two pre-Euro 2012 friendlies, where they drew first with an uninspired Uruguay side and then with a toothless Lithuania outfit in a match so low key that the players themselves described it as similar to a training game.
But then, out of the blue, something clicked. A 3-0 victory over Italy was followed by a 4-1 demolition of the Czech Republic. The stilted, uninspired side of the qualifiers was suddenly displaying scything counter-attacking football and, for the first time in his Russia tenure, the mutterings of disaffection with coach Dick Advocaat had more or less become silent in Russia’s national press.
Suddenly, all onlookers, including this author, expected Russia to tear through the rest of the group with ease and ask serious questions of those they would meet later on.
But these flashes of magical play from the likes of Andrey Arshavin, Roman Shirokov and Alan Dzagoev only served to paper over the cracks of the problems that had troubled analysts before the championships. These were the seeming lack of a tactical plan B, the absence of an out-and-out leader in the team and questions over the players’ fitness after a gruelling 18-month season that had seen many of the team play over 60 games.
All these issues began to creep slowly back in the draw against Poland. Russia looked strong for the first half but were thwarted by a Jakub Blaszczykowski wonder goal in the 57th minute.
After that the players began to tire noticeably and their ageing bodies did not seem to have any new ideas to turn to, as they ended up stumbling to a 1-1 draw in a game that will be remembered not for the events on the pitch but, sadly, for the fan violence off it.
Despite this result, no-one expected Russia not to progress from the group stages; they needed only a draw to do so and we were all assured by the players and coaches that fitness was not a problem.
But a problem it seemed to be, as the players looked sluggish from the opening whistle. They were given a number of chances by defensive errors from the Greeks but failed to capitalise on them and once their opponents began to snuff out Russia’s counter-attacking threat by sitting very deep in large defensive numbers, the sbornaya looked lost for further ideas.
|Russia v Greece review
It is astounding that a team with players of the creative ability of Russia’s midfield and wings could not manage any more stringent attempts on Michalis Sifakis’s goal than the speculative pot-shots to which they resorted.
Advocaat was heavily criticised throughout most of his tenure for never trying other attacking systems and Russia paid dearly for this failure to experiment on Saturday, as he threw on attacking players in Roman Pavlyuchenko, Pavel Pogrebnyak and Marat Izmailov, but none of them seemed to know what they should be doing on the pitch.
A real leader was sorely needed here, too; Arshavin is undeniably a wonderful player when he has got the bit between his teeth, but a leader he is not. When it came to the crunch, Russia needed someone to drag them forward but the diminutive winger had been missing for the whole game, looking tired, lost and disinterested and the rest of his team looked the same by the end.
Russia return to Moscow now but they will not bring their coach with them; he leaves for PSV in his native Netherlands. The new coach will be tasked with clearing out many of these unarguably talented old players and giving chances to the likes of Artem Dzyuba, Taras Burlak and Magomed Ozdoev, all of whom many would have taken to the tournament.
As for Advocaat, he will not be remembered overly fondly in the country where he had such mixed success; he never managed to charm the media, not attempting to learn Russian in the six years he worked there, and seeming a gruff, unwelcoming figure at times.
One of Russia’s main football commentators famously named the Dutchman a “lame duck” during his time with Zenit and it is a nickname that stuck and will continue to stick in the memories of Russian fans.