Fabio Capello struggling with lack of depth
20 August ~ A team of pensioners who are past it, a team of millionaires who don't care about their country, a team riddled with strife up against a more organised and physical team – the reasons Russian fans have given for their 1-0 loss to Northern Ireland at Windsor Park in a World Cup qualifier last week are numerous. But most agree that this was one of the most disappointing results in Russia's post-Soviet history, and that qualification for the World Cup now hangs in the balance – they are second in Group F, one point ahead of Israel and two behind Portugal.
In the post-match interviews neither manager Fabio Capello nor his players wanted to single out any individual player, saying it was a poor team performance against a better side. Certainly they looked pedestrian and, as is often the case with Russian national teams, they were outmuscled by their opponents.
Fans were more forthcoming in when attributing blame: captain Igor Denisov – currently at the centre of the problems that will see Anzhi Makhachkala sell most of their best players – bore the brunt for his failure to give post-interviews as much as anything else, along with forward Aleksandr Kerzhakov. The keenness of Russia managers to keep selecting Kerzhakov, despite his poor international goal-scoring record, is perhaps down to how hard he works for the team, but on Tuesday he once again looked like a good club forward rather than an international player.
When asked about Kerzhakov's continued selection, Capello damned him with faint praise: "I can't create a new forward for you – I play who there is." The lack of depth is one of the biggest problems for the manager, as proved when Kerzhakov's half-time replacement, in-form Artyom Dzyuba, did little better. The midfield has a bit more depth, as does the goalkeeping position, but in defence there are few decent replacements for the older and slower legs Northern Ireland exploited.
More pressing than overhauling his team is the need for Capello to crack Russia's tendency to come off the rails when it really matters: losing to Slovenia in the World Cup 2010 play-offs despite looking comfortable in the first leg, to Greece at Euro 2012 despite starting the group so well, losing to Northern Ireland here despite having only dropped points to Portugal in the group previously.
Russia now need to win their last four games to qualify for the World Cup directly; if not, they will likely be in the play-offs. As an Englishman with a Russian family, my loyalties will be divided if they find themselves up against my home country. But whatever criticisms there may be of England, they are a team who seem hungrier and more ready for a physical battle than Russia. And – strange as it may sound to England followers – they are less likely to capitulate when the chips are down. Saul Pope