The Calm Before The Storm
Russia and Argentina come into this fixture, glamorous as it may be, with bigger fish to fry. Both sides face crucial World Cup qualifiers in the upcoming weeks that will shape their respective destinies next summer. With that in mind, the Lokomotiv Stadium showdown on Wednesday will be a tuning up exercise rather than a veritable clash of the titans.
Continuity Of Ideas
Russia stand second to Germany in UEFA World Cup Qualification Group 4, only a point worse off than the Nationalelf. Guus Hiddink's team face Wales and Liechtenstein in three weeks' time and then square off against the Germans on October 10 in what could be a make or break fixture for both sides.
This calendar year, the Russians have been solid, if unspectacular. Azerbaijan, Liechtenstein and Finland have all been despatched in the qualification phase, to help steady the boat after October's defeat to Germany, and not a single goal has been shipped. Hiddink has been rewarded with some fine defensive performances from the likes of Sergei Ignashevich and Chelsea's newest arrival, Yuri Zhirkov; he has also benefited from continuity of the implementation of his ideas by his dedicated troops.
In attack, the raw strength of Pavel Pogrebnyak and Roman Pavlyuchenko is offset by the finishing instincts of Sacha Kerzhakov, scorer of a brace last time out against Finland.
Blend in the X-Factor of the captain, Andrey Arshavin, and the burgeoning talent of Alan Dzagoev, and Russia have enough at their disposal to cause Maradona's team a few jitters before they resume their own flagging qualification process.
The Russian Premier League is already in full swing, so Hiddink may not have to worry about creaking limbs ahead of the western European kick-off. Only Arshavin, Pavlyuchenko, Zhirkov and Pavel Pogrebnyak are plying their trade outside the native border.
On The Brink Of Despair?
It wasn't supposed to be like this; seven matches into Diego Maradona's blighted reign as the coach of Argentina and the South Americans are contemplating the unfathomable - missing out on a World Cup place.
Alfio Basile was jettisoned last year as los Albicelestes languished in pursuit of an automatic berth at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Maradona, with Carlos Bilardo as general manager, was brought in to revive proceedings. What has followed is further woe for the erstwhile World Cup favourites.
Results such as a 4-0 win over Venezuela and a gutsy 1-0 victory over Colombia have only papered over the cracks of a poor campaign. Up to now, the process has been pockmarked by a confusing array of formations and hampered by embarrassing defeats to Bolivia and Ecuador.
Maradona has veered from a 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3 via a 3-4-3 leaving some of his more potent attacking weapons in continuing doubt as to their roles. Lionel Messi has yet to hit full stride for his nation in their qualifiers and the Argentinians are in dire need of improvement before next month's CONMEBOL fixtures.
Paraguay and Brazil lay in wait for Maradona's charges and Ecuador are creeping towards the fourth place spot that Argentina currently cling to. Defeat in either of their next two competitive matches would spell imminent disaster for el Diez and co.; missing out on an automatic place at the finals, or worse still, missing out on even the play-offs.
Accordingly, there is some significance in this test of strength against one of Europe's top sides, who will give sturdy competition to an ailing team. Maradona has stated that he could do without the inconvenience of a trip to Moscow; more poor performances from his team could mean cancelling the one to South Africa.
10 June 09 v Finland WCQ WON 3-0
1 April 09 v Liechtenstein WCQ WON 1-0
28 March 09 v Azerbaijan WCQ WON 2-0
15 October 08 v Finland WCQ WON 3-0
11 October 08 v Germany WCQ LOST 2-1
10 June v Ecuador WCQ LOST 2-0
6 June v Colombia WCQ WON 1-0
20 May v Panama Friendly WON 2-0
1 April v Bolivia WCQ LOST 6-1
28 March v Venezuela WCQ WON 4-0
Russia: Akinfeev; Anyukov, Kolodin, Ignashevich, Zhirkov; Semak, Semshov; Dzagoev, Arshavin, Zyryanov; Kerzhakov
Argentina: Carrizo; Zanetti, Diaz, Otamendi, Heinze; Mascherano, Battaglia, Jonas; Aguero, Messi, D Milito
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Russia - Alan Dzagoev
The CSKA Moscow playmaker became Russia's youngest ever outfield international when he made his debut against Germany last year, and is touted as the next great Russian attacking talent. Dzagoev enjoys a fruitful partnership with Vagner Love at the apex of the Army Men's front-line and possesses a creative spark as well as an eye for goal. The 19-year-old will be seeking to impress in order to book a seat on the plane to South Africa, should Russia qualify.
Argentina - Lionel Messi
The world's greatest player has been burdened with Diego Maradona's number 10 shirt during a sticky period for los Albicelestes. Barcelona's hub is also the 'go-to guy' for his national team but has not always found space to engineer his mastery in the Argentina shirt in recent months. Maradona's myriad array of formations have yet to give Messi an opportunity to wreak havoc, but el Diez will be hoping that his successor can inspire the team to qualification wins in September.
In what is likely to be another experiment for Maradona, Russia's continuity and definitive gameplan will give them the advantage. Both sides boast an incredible array of talent but the hosts should have enough in their ranks to see off the South Americans. With the Russian Premier League in full swing and many of Argentina's stars barely off the deckchairs, Russia will have a crucial head-start.
Russia 2-1 Argentina
Peter Staunton, Goal.com