COMMENT: Russia go into their opening Group H tie with South Korea keen to make amends for a poor Euro 2012, but are already looking ahead to four years' time on home soil
Few head coaches at the World Cup can enjoy the job security afforded to Russia boss Fabio Capello. The Italian was rewarded with a four-year contract extension in January, committing himself to remaining in charge beyond the 2018 World Cup, which will see Russia act as hosts.
The Russian Football Union (RFU) has already very much begun to think beyond Brazil. The success of hosting their maiden international tournament is of paramount importance to authorities in Moscow and the dent to national pride from a dismal showing by the Sbornaya in 2018 would be extremely difficult to stomach.
Capello is the man tasked with preventing such an embarrassment. The 67-year-old coach has already described Brazil’s tournament as a "rehearsal" ahead of Russia’s showpiece in four year’s time, so the pressure on his players has been somewhat relieved. However, considering the perceived weakness of Group H and Russia’s strides under Capello since Euro 2012, expectations have not completely evaporated.
“I expect a good performance from the team," midfielder Oleg Shatov told the RFU website this week. "I do not want to think about the bad things, I want to think only about the good and look ahead with optimism.
“I know and believe that we will at least get out of the group. Then we will see.”
There is a prevailing sense of cautious optimism amongst the Russians, particularly considering the distance they have come since their disastrous Euro 2012 campaign. Immediately after the tournament Capello inherited a side bereft of confidence and direction, after they crashed out at the group stage following a 1-0 defeat to Greece in Warsaw.
Since then, Russia’s ascent under the Italian has been profound. The Sbornaya produced a surprise to edge Portugal into second place in their World Cup qualifying group, winning all five home games and boasting an impressive back-line that conceded only five times in ten matches. Indeed, Capello has made Russia an extremely difficult side to beat, only presiding over two defeats since he arrived.
The key to Capello’s Russian revival has been rooted in the defensive discipline he has instilled within the squad. The former Juventus coach has a reputation for building well-organised sides with solidity at their heart and this catenaccio-style system is one that he has brought to Russia too. The Sbornaya hold the ball well, can nullify opposition attacks and have some promising young players who thrive on the counterattack.
The talented 23-year-old Alan Dzagoev will shoulder much of the team’s creative burden while Dinamo Moscow youngster Aleksandr Kokorin, who scored 10 in 22 in the Russian Premier League last season, is likely to start up front ahead of Aleksandr Kerzhakov. However, that is not to say that Russia’s World Cup preparations have gone entirely smoothly.
Losing Roman Shirokov, their captain and midfield fulcrum, to an Achilles tendon injury was a bitter blow. Shirokov is Capello’s key man, driving the team forward with both creativity and box-to-box dynamism. There is no one in the Russian side with the same level of football intelligence and the team have had to hastily adapt to a new tactical approach in the 32-year-old’s absence.
Capello used his three pre-tournament friendlies to focus on breaking down the flanks through Dmitri Kombarov and Yuri Zhirkov. Though some commentators lamented the slow pace of their unconvincing 1-0 win over Slovakia and 1-1 draw with Norway, the 2-0 victory over Morocco saw Russia exploit wide areas at will, although it remains to be seen if they will experience similar success against higher calibre opposition.
Russia, though, have good reason to be optimistic. Ahead of group games against South Korea, Belgium and Algeria, they have an enviable record of 10 games unbeaten. While this is slightly deceptive with only one of those matches against a team that has qualified for the World Cup, that game was a solid 2-1 win over South Korea in October.
That choice of friendly not only seems prescient but also gives an indication of Russia’s relative strength. Belgium are widely regarded as favourites to progress but Russia should be considered a clear second. Passage to the last-16 is a seen by many Russians as a minimum requirement but anything beyond that, particularly as Germany would likely await them in the second round, will simply be a bonus.
"The experience of games at the World Cup helps," Capello was quoted as saying by the Moscow Times on Sunday. "Four years ago, I was at the tournament with the England team, but it is important to remember which players you are coaching and what their mentality is. Experience helps you to fix mistakes you made in the past."
After a tumultuous time with England in 2010 the Italian may feel he has unfinished business at the World Cup but Brazil might not be his opportunity to redeem himself. The RFU have long-term goals and this summer’s tournament will be viewed with one eye on 2018.