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|EURO 2012 Preview: Russia|
Last time in the Euros, Russia was one of the revelations of the competition with their attractive, attacking style under master coach Guus Hiddink taking their side of relative unknowns all the way to the semi finals. Very quickly the stars of the side, such as Andrei Arsharvin and Yuri Zhirkov, were signed to some of the biggest clubs in Europe and Russian football seemed on its way up.
Fast forward to now and things haven't exactly gone to script. They failed to qualify for the World Cup in 2010 and most of those players that left the comfort of their homeland in 2008 have returned after disappointing stints. On top of that, the nucleus of the national team is largely the same as it was in Switzerland & Austria, with a worrying lack of fresh talent coming through.
They've also lost the man who masterminded their run to the semis in 2008, Head Coach Guus Hiddink, who has been replaced by former Holland and Rangers coach Dick Advocaat. While Advocaat is no slouch, he is not as liked as the abundantly popular Hiddink, and has endured some criticism for conservative tactics despite getting the Russians through qualifying with just the one loss.
Many fans are concerned that Advocaat is not blooding enough youngsters and that side has not progressed enough since losing to Spain in Vienna. The Dutchman has retorted with the fact that the current up and comers are just not yet good enough to play on the international stage, and for the most part he's right.
Since a huge influx of money to Russian football since they won the rights for the 2018 World Cup, more and more overseas stars have been travelling to Russia to pick up bumper pay checks. This has lifted the standard of the Russian league overall, but it has come at the expense of Russian youngsters who are being forced to sit on the bench rather than gain valuable experience.
That being said, Russia still have a very talented squad who have four years more experience on the fresh faced youngsters who's football style was so pleasing on the eye. Players like Arsharvin and young gun Alan Dzagoev will cause issues for any defence in Europe if they get on song, exploiting the spaces between the midfield and defence and allowing their creative genius to slowly pick sides apart.
They will also look again to the former Chelsea man Yuri Zhirkov to drive out of defence and provide width, as well as delivering the balls into the dangerous areas for their out and out attackers to mop up. Indeed set-pieces will be a big part of the Russians game in an attacking sense, with Sergei Ignashevich and Arsharvin both capable of scoring from free-kicks, as well as several big men who can get forward and provide a real aerial threat.
On top of that, Russia have been placed in what is arguably the easiest group of the four and should be able to get through the group stages relatively unscathed. If they can build up some confidence and momentum through the group stages they could be a really difficult preposition for any team, and will fancy their chances at causing an upset or two.
PLAYER TO WATCH: ALAN DZAGOEV
While many pundits are unsure of the potential that the next crop of Russian youngsters possesses, they can be fairly sure of CSKA Moscow's Alan Dzagoev to deliver the goods. At 21 years old he is already a crucial cog in the Russian starting 11, playing as a creative attacking midfielder.
He may not be well known overseas yet, but he's been the hype of Russia for a while now and many have high hopes for him to make an impact on the world stage in Poland & Ukraine.
He first burst onto the scene when he was named the Russian Premier League's Best Young Player in 2008/2009 after having a breakout year in his debut season, despite being just 18 at the time. Since then, he has averaged better than a goal every four games for CSKA Moscow and last season scored six goals in 48 appearances.
He made his international debut in 2010, where he became the youngest outfield player ever to pull on a Russian shirt at 18 and 116 days. Since then he has flourished under the guidance of Coach Dick Advocaat, playing a creative role in the hole behind the strikers, where he has been able to assist as well as get on the goal sheet. In the qualifying campaign he played eight games and finished their joint top goal scorer with veteran Roman Pavlyuchenko on four goals.
If he can keep that form going into Euro 2012 then he could really be one of the stars of the championship and announce himself as a world class talent to the rest of the world. Watch out for him.
TOM'S PREDICTION: CHAMPIONS - Could be one to watch as dark horses, as their squad is more or less the one that got to the semis in 2008 and they probably have the easiest draw of anyone. Definitely Quarter Finals, but could spring a surprise and go one extra step.