"Easy" group hasn't helped in the past

">icon worldcup317 June ~ When a Russian football writer told me fans were more pessimistic than ever about the country's chances at the World Cup, I shouldn't have been as surprised – I've seen them downbeat and cynical about their country's football for much of the last two decades. "It's been drilled into everyone's heads that Russian football is an embarrassment," wrote Andy Shenk, co-founder of russianfootballnews.com. "Everyone is surprised when I speak up in its defence." Post-Soviet Russia have qualified for just two World Cups other than this one, and didn't get out of the group either time.

Many decent players have come and gone without realising their potential, apart from the Euro 2008 side. An excellent performance then against the Netherlands and an away victory over France during Euro 2000 qualifying are the highlights of the last 22 years, blips against a background of underachievement.

Key figures from Euro 2008 such as Roman Pavlyuchenko and Andrey Arshavin seem to have quickly passed their best, and have been dropped in favour of younger players by Fabio Capello. Some feel that a resurgent Arshavin should be in the current squad, however, as injury has kept key midfielder and captain Roman Shirokov out. Seen by many fans as the "brains" of the side, experienced Shirokov has recently been Russia's most potent force going forward: the current squad doesn't have a natural replacement.

That Russia's group looks relatively easy should be a comfort to fans, but some have drawn parallels with the group they failed to get out of in 2002. Back then they beat Tunisia but lost to Belgium and Japan. This time around fans expect to lose to Belgium again but beat Algeria, making a positive result in today's game against South Korea crucial.

I feel there is room for optimism about Russia's prospects. Two key Euro 2008 players, goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev and centre-back Sergey Ignashevich, remain important members of the first XI. Shirokov may be out, but his replacement will probably be one of two skilful young prospects: Zenit St. Petersburg's Oleg Shatov or Alan Dzagoev, who scored three goals at Euro 2012. Both playing would be an exciting proposition for the neutral fan as well as those following Russia.

In attack Aleksandr Kerzhakov may have been lampooned for his misses in front of goal, but he could become Russia's all time top scorer at this tournament – and his hard work for the team cannot be overlooked. He may, however, find his place taken by the creative and versatile Aleksandr Kokorin, widely regarded as Russian football's biggest hope for the future.

Progress through the group is the maximum most hope for, but a good second round draw could see the cynicism evaporate. Any further than that and the jokes about which team to support once Russia are eliminated would cease. Maybe even the cynical tweeter who reminds followers on a daily basis that the last player to score for Russia in a World Cup – Dmitry Sychev – has not scored again for his current club, will think twice. Saul Pope


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