How the Russians proved everyone wrong, at home and abroad

Dismissed, derided and demonised, the Russian team was considered something of a running joke among most people here until this month.


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What a difference a week can make. With six points from two games, eight goals scored and just one conceded, the Russians have been the unexpected stars of the group stage.

And how the perception of the team has changed. Ready to disengage from the Sbornaya at any moment, the Russian public has piled in behind their new heroes. The streets are awash with national pride. And why wouldn’t they be riding this rising wave?

The first two victories of this tournament haven’t just been good for the hosts. They’ve been devastating.

But first the caveats. Saudi Arabia are hardly one of this event’s best, and in the post-Bert van Marwijk era, have been stripped of their organisational discipline. The 5-0 shellacking reflected this; the rush of late goals symptomatic of a team that has always been defensively suspect on the big stage.

Egypt were tipped to battle Russia for second spot in the group but were simply too dependent on Mohamed Salah in the second game, having rested him in the opening match, a 1-0 defeat to Uruguay.

The Liverpool forward is here but in name only. He scored a penalty but otherwise looked a shadow of the player who took the English Premier League by storm this season. When it became clear in the early stages that Salah was not fit, the Russians grew in confidence. There would be no saviour for the Pharaohs.

Instead, the headlines have all been reserved for a new generation of Russian heroes. And it is here that your humble columnist wishes to eat some humble pie.

Prior to the first match, I singled out Alan Dzagoev, Fyodor Smolov and Denis Cheryshev as part of an over-hyped, under-delivering generation that emerged going into EURO 2012. Having watched a lot of the Russian team in recent years, that trio – said to be the successors to Alexander Kerzhakov, Andrey Arshavin and Alexei Smertin – seemed way off the pace.

Unfortunately for Dzagoev, his hamstring strain picked up against Saudi Arabia has him out until the knockout stages. That’s a shame, because he looked lively and ready to make his mark in his fleeting game time.

Smolov has been overshadowed by Artem Dzyuba, another of the pre-2012 generation. Frozen out at Zenit St Petersburg after just one goal in 15 games, he was sent to Arsenal Tula to finish the campaign, scored six goals in 10 games. He barely scraped into the squad.

Coming on as a substitute in the first game, the 196-centimetre target man has seized the moment. Not only did he power home a header against the Saudis, he was given a starting berth against Egypt and delivered Russia’s third goal, powerfully winning the ball in the air and then superbly blasting home with his feet.

But it is Cheryshev, with three goals, who stands above all others. He replaced Dzagoev in the opening match and has been that good that you have to wonder how he didn’t start to begin with. It’s no surprise to learn he developed his skills at Real Madrid and is still plying his trade in La Liga with Villareal.

Cheryshev has found an exceptional understanding with Aleksandr Golovin and the pair have combined to bring Russia a genuine technical edge. Let's see how they go against better opposition, but they have been thrilling to watch thus far.

Collectively, we are still to see how this Russian team fare when they face a real test. And if they rest and rotate players against Uruguay – potentially a wise move – we may not know their limitations until the knockout stages. But simply getting this far, amid all the forecasts of doom, makes them winners already.

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4 min read
Published 20 June 2018 at 10:41pm
By Sebastian Hassett in Samara