Momentum is often crucial in football. A few months ago, Russia were blessed with an abundance of it. The disastrous tenure of Fabio Capello had come to an end and CSKA Moscow manager Leonid Slutsky had overseen four consecutive wins in Euro 2016 qualifying to complete a remarkable turnaround and secure Russia’s place at the tournament.
But, in the past few weeks, that momentum has turned into worry as Alan Dzagoev and Igor Denisov have both been ruled out with injury. Dzagoev’s injury came first, as CSKA wrapped up the league title in their final game of the season, but Denisov’s occurred with the squad already together and plans already in place. In other circumstances, both would have lined up as the central midfield pair for Russia’s opener against England. Dzagoev would have been tasked with providing creativity from a withdrawn role, while Denisov would trundle around and aim to protect the defensive line.
Where Russia suffer, England benefit. Dzagoev’s loss is the most crucial, with the Russia squad unable to provide a comparatively talented replacement. Denis Glushakov, and even Pavel Mamaev, could fill in and perform competently but both lack the technique and creative spark that Dzagoev provides. The loss of Denisov is also a blow, but one that can be managed more effectively. The Dinamo Moscow midfielder was largely poor in a season that provided the club’s first ever relegation from the top flight, with Roman Neustadter able to deputise and Artur Yusupov called up as late replacement.
Though Dzagoev and Denisov represent just two losses, the mood around the Russian team has shifted. The national press, often hysterical, have now centred in on any possible injury scare, detailing when and where players spend time on their own with fitness coaches. Before there was positivity, with a talented bunch of players managed by an attacking coach, but now there is trepidation that hopes could be extinguished before they have a chance to ignite.
But such pessimism may not be justified. Russia still have a talented assembly of players and the most gifted Russian coach for a generation. Slutsky has cemented CSKA as the dominant force in the Russian Premier League, combining a knowledge of tactical systems with a gift for man management that leaves players speaking positively of their time with him. Yet his coaching credentials are often forgotten, especially by those not familiar with the Russian game. The ceaseless rocking to-and-fro in his managerial chair provides a source of confusion and curiosity. The story of his playing career ending due to an injury sustained while trying to rescue a cat from a tree often leads to ridicule. Background details provide interest but it is easy to lose sight of Slutsky’s immense talent as a coach.
Slutsky’s capability as a coach is also aided by some of the talented players at his disposal. England’s two main sources of concern in the opening clash may be Zenit pair Oleg Shatov and Artem Dzyuba. Shatov, a winger who can play on both flanks or as a No.10, will threaten any set of full-backs more focussed on attack than defence. If England’s full-backs are caught high up the pitch, Shatov will be ready to take advantage, as will the talented Aleksandr Kokorin, who could use this tournament as the break-out moment that many in Russia thought would have already appeared. Shatov and Kokorin, on either flank, will support Dzyuba, a tall and powerful target man who has developed from enfant terriblé at Spartak to the man charged with leading the line at Zenit.
The regular attack will be supported by two players who have enjoyed break-out seasons of widely differing character. For so long a useful but, ultimately, ineffective forward, Fedor Smolov has, at 26-years-old, enjoyed the season of his career. His 20 goals in the Russian Premier League, with 15 coming since the winter break, have made him the form player in the country, propelling him from mediocrity to the national team. Then there is Aleksandr Golovin, a player whose career shows no signs of suffering from the early stutters and stalls of Smolov’s. At just 20, the CSKA Moscow midfielder is the crown prince of Russian football, attracting scouts from across Europe with what appears a disproportionate mastery of the game for someone so inexperienced. Long-term, Golovin will serve as the heir to the prodigiously talented Roman Shirokov, who is struggling for form and fitness heading into Euro 2016.
Shirokov’s worries are typical of a Russian squad that has seen some of it’s optimism drained with the injuries to Dzagoev and Denisov. But Slutsky’s side still have enough to compete in the group. They will provide a resolute challenge to England in the opening fixture, though conceding an early goal could irreparably damage their chances. After that, the minimum requirement will be qualification for the knock-out stages, where Slutsky’s tactical prowess will be tested.
Russia’s best performance in recent memory came at Euro 2008, as Guus Hiddink’s side lost to Spain in the semi-final. Roman Pavlyuchenko, star of that side and later of Tottenham, recently told SportFakt that the current squad has the potential to match, and even better, that achievement. A good start against England will be crucial if Russia are to live up to Pavlyuchenko’s expectations.