Russia v Czech Republic, June 8, 7.45pm
8 June ~ In the build-up to Russia’s opening Euro 2012 game against the Czech Republic later today, I have searched in vain among the country’s fans for the typical big match gloom. There are usually sarcastic or self-depreciating quips about the team’s likely performance, best summed up by a joke that was doing the rounds in the build-up to Euro 2004: "Who are you going support?" "Russia". "And after that?" But this time there is only quiet optimism. As well as being in a middling group which they are one of the favourites to get out of, Russia have a strong and settled side.
Six of the team that beat Holland 3-1 in the Euro 2008 quarter finals are likely to start against the Czechs; two more will be on the bench. The bulk of the defence have played together at CSKA Moscow, while almost the entire midfield and attack will be teammates from champions Zenit St. Petersburg. The biggest headache for coach Dick Advocaat is deciding which of two strong goalkeepers to play – Zenit’s Vyacheslav Malafeev or CSKA’s Igor Akinfeev.
Some fans have been so optimistic that they have spoken of there being a Russian player who will make everyone sit up and take note. If so, it will likely come from one midfield position fought over by two players. Alan Dzagoev is Russia’s bright young thing, a clever playmaker with the ability to make a killer pass. However, he may be kept out of the starting line-up by the squad’s wild card – Sporting’s Marat Izmailov. Izmailov was the equivalent hope of Russia’s 2002 World Cup squad, but slipped off the radar around the time he moved abroad; until recently he had not been selected for Russia since 2006. In this squad Advocaat has generally preferred new faces to international underachievers, making Izmailov’s selection doubly unusual.
So what could invoke the familiar pathos? Much has been made of the age of the squad – though there’s only likely to be one player over thirty-two in today’s starting line-up. More worrying is the forward line. Zenit’s Alexandr Kerzhakov is likely to be the lone striker: he averages a goal in three games at international level, around a goal in two at club level recently, and is the current golden boy. However, as a veteran of watching him waste chances for Zenit, I am less certain than many about him: almost all his nineteen international goals have come either in friendlies or against very weak opponents (including hat-tricks against Andorra and Liechtenstein), and during his only seasons outside the Russian league he struggled to dislodge Frederic Kanoute from the Sevilla starting eleven.
The Czechs have described this as a match in which they are clear underdogs. Though there is optimism in Russia, nobody has gone as far as to expect a win. The one thing that is certain where Russia is concerned is that there will be unpredictability – that could mean a nervous side playing out a 3-0 loss, and the return of those old jokes sooner rather than later. Saul Pope