World Cup Preview – Russia
Best World Cup Performance: 4th Place (As USSR) – 1966
Current World Ranking: 70
Sbornaya will be making their eleventh appearance at the finals, with seven of those as the Soviet Union.
First entering in Sweden 1958, the USSR reached the quarter-finals in their first four attempts, including their best finish of fourth in 1966, where they lost out to West Germany in the semi-finals and Eusebio’s Portugal in the play-off.
They played in all but two tournaments (1974 and 1978, when they were disqualified and didn’t qualify respectively) until the USSR’s dissolution in 1991. During this time, they were a dominant force in Europe, claiming the inaugural European Championship in 1960 and finishing runners-up a further three times.
Since 1992, Russia have qualified for three of six World Cup Finals, most recently in 2014. Despite this, they have failed to reach the knockout stages for 32 years, but will get fewer chances as good as this at home in 2018.
Goalkeepers: Igor Akinfeev (CSKA Moscow), Vladimir Gabulov (Club Brugge), Andrey Lunev (Zenit St Petersburg).
Defenders: Vladimir Granat, Fedor Kudryashov (both Rubin Kazan), Ilya Kutepov (Spartak Moscow), Andrey Semenov (Akhmat Grozny), Sergei Ignashevich, Mario Fernandes (both CSKA Moscow), Igor Smolnikov (Zenit St Petersburg).
Midfielders: Yuri Gazinskiy (Krasnodar), Alexsandr Golovin, Alan Dzagoev (both CSKA Moscow), Aleksandr Erokhin, Yuri Zhirkov, Daler Kuzyaev (all Zenit St Petersburg), Roman Zobnin, Alexsandr Samedov (both Spartak Moscow), Anton Miranchuk (Lokomotiv Moscow), Denis Cheryshev (Villarreal).
Forwards: Artem Dzyuba (Arsenal Tula), Aleksey Miranchuk (Lokomotiv Moscow), Fedor Smolov (Krasnodar).
vs Saudi Arabia 16:00 – 14th June Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow
vs Egypt 19:00 – 19th June Krestovsky Stadium, St. Petersburg
vs Uruguay 15:00 – 25th June Samara Arena, Samara
Manager – Stanislav Cherchesov
Former Goalkeeper Cherchesov has the honour of managing Russia at the World Cup, having played in 1994 and 2002.
He amassed 32 caps for Russia, in addition to the eight he won for the USSR, over a club career which included four spells at Spartak Moscow.
After hanging up his boots in 2002, he was given his managerial debut in 2004 with Austrian club Kufstein. That spell did not last, and he has not since lasted more than two years at any club.
He was appointed manager of Russia following Euro 2016, leaving Legia Warsaw in the process.
As is tradition, Russia received an automatic berth as hosts, meaning they did not have to participate in qualifying.
Instead, while other nations battled for the other 31 spots, they played a series of friendlies and the Confederations Cup.
In total, Sbornaya have played 20 fixtures since Euro 2016, winning six, drawing five and losing eight.
At the Confederations Cup, Russia opened their campaign with a 2-0 victory over New Zealand, but finished third in the group after narrow defeats to Portugal and Mexico.
Their form briefly showed signs of improving after beating South Korea last October, but they have failed to win any of their five matches since, resulting in a slide down the world rankings where they currently sit at 66 (their worst position ever).
They conclude their warm-up with friendlies against Austria and Turkey, looking to gain momentum ahead of the tournament opener against Saudi Arabia.
Captain – Igor Akinfeev
Evergreen Goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev will have the honour of leading out his side on June 14th. Having accumulated over 100 caps since his debut in 2004, amazingly Akinfeev is only 32.
He has spent his entire career at CSKA Moscow and was named Captain in March of last year, following the international retirement of veteran defender and fellow CSKA stalwart Vasili Berezutski.
Be sure to see Akinfeev bark his orders from between the sticks as he bids to put to bed his demons of 2014, where a horrible mistake cost his side a goal in their tournament opener against South Korea.
Danger man – Fyodor Smolov
It has been a while since a Russian striker was a global name. Four years ago, the hopes of the nation rested on Aleksandr Kokorin, but he failed to live up to his hype. Artem Dzyuba laboured at Euro 2016. This year, Fyodor Smolov will carry the weight.
After an eight-year spell at Dynamo Moscow and four loan spells, the former youth international settled and sprung into life at Krasnodar.
51 goals in 70 club games and six in his last 11 for his country mean Smolov is the one to watch.
Young Player – Aleksandr Golovin
Russia will likely have one of the oldest squads this summer, but many young players are beginning to burst onto the scene.
Of these, none are as integrated into the squad as CSKA Moscow midfielder Aleksandr Golovin. English fans will likely remember his sumptuous freekick against Arsenal in the Europa League in April, showing the danger he provides.
The Central midfielder; who will be 22 come the start of the tournament, has 17 caps and two goals to his name already and will be touted by several European Clubs this summer.
Premier League Players
There will be no Premier League representation in the Russian squad this summer. No Russian has played in the Premier League since 2013, since Andrey Arshavin left Arsenal and Pavel Pogrebnyak’s Reading were relegated to the Championship.
Pogrebnyak continued to play in the second tier for another two years, and is one of only eight Russians to play in the Premier League, alongside Arshavin, Diniyar Bilyaletdinov, Andrei Kanchelskis, Dmitri Kharine, Roman Pavlyuchenko, Aleksey Smertin and Yuri Zhirkov.
As a matter of fact, the overwhelming majority of Russia’s current crop plays in the Russian Premier League. Club Brugge’s Vladimir Gabulov and Villarreal’s Denis Cheryshev are the only players in the final 23 to play their club football elsewhere.
West Ham were linked with a move for Fyodor Smolov earlier this year, and a good performance may reignite talks of a Premier League move.
Russia enter the tournament as the lowest ranked side. That being said, the average ranking of all sodes in Group A is 49, so they have got lucky here. With second lowest ranked Saudi Arabia facing the hosts in the opening match, Russia must take three points from the tournament opener to stand a realistic chance of progressing.
Egypt and Uruguay await in the final round of fixtures, but aside from star players Mohamed Salah, Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani and Diego Godin, they are both largely ordinary.
It should not be underestimated how much the climate affects performances in International football. Neither Saudi Arabia, Egypt or Uruguay will feel at home in the cold of northern Eurasia and fans know that they must be at their hostile best to give their team the best chance in a very open group.
I back Russia to qualify to the knock-out stages with either Egypt or Uruguay, but Spain or Portugal will prove a step too far in the second round.
Written by Sam Hanys.