“It will be a big mistake to play for a draw against Greece” says Dick Advocaat. He is right for two important reasons. Firstly, it will be against Russia’s nature to defend from the start, and their weakest link, the slow pair of centre-backs, will likely crack under constant pressure. Secondly, it is extremely important to finish top of the group in order to avoid meeting Germany in the quarter-finals. A draw might not be enough to assure first place if Czech Republic beat Poland, and thus it is wise for Russia to mentally prepare themselves to fight for three points against Fernando Santos’ side.
Here are a few tips that might be useful to achieve this goal.
A. Attack from the very first minute. Greece proved to be very slow starters in both of their games at Euro 2012 so far. They were virtually nonexistent in the first half against Poland, as the hosts should have scored much more than just a solitary Robert Lewandowski goal. The Greeks went “one better” against the Czechs, conceding two goals in the first six minutes, thus setting a new European Championship record. The previous one, by the way, was a hefty 16 minutes, with Frank Rijkaard and Rob Witschge scoring for Holland against Germany 20 years ago. It will be difficult to surprise Greece with an outright attacking attitude, but they will most likely be found unprepared nevertheless. Take them by storm, as scoring an early goal will be of huge significance. After all, Greece are still to concede a goal in the second half in this tournament. It is also quite ironic to mention that Russia scored the fastest ever goal in the tournament against Greece, with Dmitry Kirichenko netting after 68 seconds at Euro 2004.
B. If Fernando Santos chooses to play the dreadfully out-of-form Jose Holebas at left-back again, he should be taken advantage of. Jakub Blaszczykowski, Lukasz Piszczek, Theodor Gebre Selassie and Petr Jiracek already exposed Holebas’ awful positioning, and there is little doubt Alan Dzagoev and Aleksandr Anyukov can do the same. Another useful idea will be to send Andrei Arshavin to the relevant wing from time to time, and instruct Roman Shirokov to pop up there as often as possible.
C. Keep an eye on opponents’ fastest players, especially Dimitris Salpingidis. The man who is responsible for the fabulous comeback against Poland poses the major threat to Aleksei Berezutsky and Sergei Ignashevich with his sheer pace. Vaclav Pilar used his speed to score the consolation goal against Russia in the opening fixture, and that type of through balls is the most dangerous weapon of Greece as well. Giorgos Karagounis, the man whose vision remains his major asset, could easily split the defence a couple of times, and conceding the first goal will be a huge setback for the team not renowned for mental strength.
D. Don’t make stupid fouls. Karagounis is yet to perform a dangerous free kick in this tournament, but that doesn’t mean he forgot how to shoot them. This is his second major asset, and Igor Denisov will be extremely wise not to make rush challenges around his penalty area.
E. Don’t even think about the Swedish referee. It is difficult to overcome the trauma of Erik Fredriksson who ruined not one but two World Cup campaigns for the Soviets, first allowing two offside Belgium goals to stand in the last 16 in Mexico-86, and then overlooking a Diego Maradona goal-line handball clearance four years later. Russia can be paranoid at times, and seeing another Swedish official, Jonas Eriksson, doesn’t add any confidence. There is absolutely no reason to fear, and negative thoughts will only do a lot of harm to the team itself. Remember – it is Greece who suffered most from refereeing errors so far in this tournament. They should be the ones who feel harshly treated, not Russia. If Advocaat’s side loses this one to a much inferior opposition, they will only have themselves to blame.
If the Greece coaches read this, they might already have understood what they have to do to improve their chances. Santos should play as many fast players as possible, with the Giannis Fetfatzidis option to be considered. He should drop Holebas, and employ the universal Vasilis Torosidis on the left, moving Sokratis Papastathopoulos to the right, and keeping Kostas Katsouranis to partner Kyriakos Papadopoulos in central defence. Greece should also do their utmost to make Russia players feel uncomfortable psychologically. Playing ultra-defensive football in the first minutes, and trying to make some swift counter-attacks might be useful in that respect. Even shouting the name of Fredriksson is a cute way to go, when Eriksson doesn’t hear. On the other hand, my colleague Chris Paraskevas would possibly disagree with some of these points.
It looks like Andrei Arshavin’s contribution is fast becoming one of the most debated and controversial topics of Euro 2012. While many hailed the captain for numerous bursts of energy versus Czech Republic that reminded of his astonishing performance four years ago, others were very critical of his attitude. Now, following the draw with Poland, Russia is truly divided.
Who is the real Arshavin? The one who is not afraid to take the game on himself, eager to create openings, sending the brilliant free-kick for Alan Dzagoev to head in? Or maybe the one who took wrong decisions in the second half, lost the ball on many occasions and was responsible for the Polish counter-attack what resulted in Jakub Blaszczykowski’s mighty strike?
Some claim Arshavin is one of the best players of the tournament at this point. Others prefer to focus on his far from perfect physical condition, that sees him taking long breaks during games, and sometimes makes him look disinterested and apathetic. Arsenal fans would surely understand the last sentence, but since moving on loan to Zenit in February seemed to have gradually regained his desire. Listen, though, to Zenit CEO Maksim Mitrofanov, who said a week ago: “Keeping Arshavin is not our main goal. He should show his interest in staying himself, because we are only interested in those who play regularly. If he has such a will, we would negotiate with him. Otherwise he will only remain a legend, not a footballer”.
Arshavin is definitely fighting for his future contract this month. It’s very much unclear whether he wants to complete a move to Zenit, but Arsenal’s desire to sell him is more than evident. The Londoners would love to get £8 million for him, and at 31 that might be quite a high price to pay for an inconsistent performer. He is in a shop window now, and he acts accordingly. At times, he is trying his hardest, and his great vision never disappeared, as his majestic through-ball to Roman Shirokov proved on the opening night. But many Russia fans prefer to see the negative side of Arshavin. Ever since the World Cup playoff fiasco in Slovenia in November 2009, he was an extremely popular subject to justified and unjustified criticism.
Andrei Kanchelskis, the winger of Manchester United fame, said after the game against Poland: “Arshavin tried to take the game on himself, but he was clearly unfit”. Another former star, Andrei Tikhonov, stated: “He should have been substituted near the end”. On the other hand, Yegveny Lovchev, one of the most vocal pundits, was full of praise for the captain: “I was pleasantly surprised and delighted by his attitude and will to work for the team. Never before has he worked so hard to help the defence”.
While Arshavin is currently leading Euro 2012 in assists, some provocative Russian websites try to open a nasty campaign against him. Bizarre headlines like “Arshavin saved Poland from defeat” and “Russian fans demand to take Arshavin out of the starting line-up” are spreading all over the net.
It is interesting whether Arshavin himself is paying attention to what is said about him. After becoming the ultimate villain at the Emirates stadium, infamously whistled when substituting Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain against Manchester United, he is obviously very used to harsh words from the press. It might not always seem that way, but he is also a very self-critical person, likely to blame himself for his mistakes and not to look for scapegoats elsewhere. He is more that aware that his bad pass eventually resulted in that Kuba equaliser. He knows he was very tired towards the end of the game, and admitted it. Does he deserve to be slaughtered? Should he be complimented instead?
One thing is certain – Arshavin fans and enemies will be closely watching him against Greece. The tournament is intense, and he will not be fitter or fresher for that fixture. His motivation will be doubted at every single moment. This blog, though, will try to concentrate on the positive aspects of his play. For now, he more than deserves it.
It was quite amusing to hear journalists ask Dick Advocaat whether Aleksandr Kerzhakov will continue in the starting line-up versus Poland. Personally, I had to argue with quite a few pundits who were convinced that Zenit striker should be benched after missing all his chances in the opener against Czech Republic. They thought so because they don’t have a clue about the Russian system. “Historically wasteful Kerzhakov the villain on night of heroes” was just one not too smart headline published after the game. It simply couldn’t be further from the truth.
Granted, Kerzhakov had seven shots off target, setting an new all-time European Championship record. But he was no villain at all. On the contrary, the lone striker was one of the best and most important players on the pitch. As mentioned here last week, Russia's style is very similar to that of Zenit. It is based on constant movement of the striker, who takes central defenders out of the box with him, allowing team-mates to sneak into the spaces created. The second goal by Roman Shirokov was the perfect example of such play. The midfielder went unnoticed into the scoring position, and Andrei Arshavin picked him out with an immaculate through-ball while both Roman Hubnik and Tomas Sivok concentrated on Kerzhakov. His part in the first goal by Alan Dzagoev was even more evident, as he missed the target by inches with a great header, and the CSKA Moscow youngster was on spot to claim the rebound off the post.
Obviously, Roman Pavlyuchenko was also impressive after the tired and somewhat frustrated Kerzhakov was substituted. The former Tottenhem striker assisted Dzagoev for his second goal, and then scored a glorious one himself. However, it only means that Advocaat has a good option on the bench, just in case Plan A doesn’t work. For all his qualities, Pavlyuchenko is less mobile and doesn’t fit the system. Pavel Pogrebnyak, despite his Zenit past and good ties with Advocaat, doesn’t fit in either. Both can be useful near the end of the game, when exhausted defenders will not be able to take on physically strong opponents. Neither will start, unless something terrible happens to “Kerzh”.
“He played really well, but was very unlucky,” Advocaat said of his protégé. He didn’t say that just to console the striker and help him maintain his confidence. He really meant it, and he was absolutely right.
Kerzhakov's story is a complicated one, as he was only part of international failures till now. He grew up at Zenit together with Arshavin, and the duo developed a great understanding between them. It speaks volumes about Aleksandr that he was actually considered the better prospect of the two, thus included by Oleg Romantsev in his 2002 World Cup squad at the tender age of 19. He barely featured, as Russia crashed out, with even an younger striker, Dmitry Sychev, taking all the plaudits. At Euro 2004 he failed to make his mark when given the only opportunity against Portugal. While his reputation grew with each season, the move to Sevilla in January 2007 proved to be a wrong step. Watching Frederic Kanoute and Luis Fabiano from the bench, he lost some of his form. Just like Arshavin and Pavlyuchenko this year, “Kerzh” moved back to the Russian Premier League in January 2008 in order to fight for his place in the national team squad. That didn’t help. Guus Hiddink was cruel in his decision not to take Kerzhakov to Euro 2008, and never changed his mind even when Pogrebnyak was injured ahead of the tournament.
Thus Kerzhakov missed the solitary positive Russian experience. He was back for the World Cup qualifiers, only to be rather harshly sent off in the play-off fiasco in Slovenia. Now, at long last, he has a chance to shine on the big stage. After scoring 22 goals for Zenit despite missing a few weeks with injury in late 2011, he couldn’t be better prepared. Some of the misses on Friday might have been pretty bad, but that doesn’t mean a thing. Kerzhakov is the perfect striker for Advocaat. He never stops trying, and you shouldn’t bet against him finding the net on Tuesday against Poland.
When witnessing the brilliant interchanges between Russia’s players, as they dismantled a rather poorly organised Czech Republic team, it was impossible not to think of the great Valery Lobanovsky’s USSR teams of the late '80s, based almost completely on Dinamo Kiev stars.
The Soviets thrashed Hungary 6-0 in their first game at 1986 World Cup in Mexico with no fewer than eight Kiev players, who had only just lifted the Cup Winners’ Cup, taking to the field. There were Oleg Kuznetsov and Vladimir Bessonov in central defence, Anatoly Demyanenko on the left, Pavel Yakovenko, Ivan Yaremchuk, Vasily Rats and Aleksandr Zavarov in a very mobile midfield, and the rocket-fast Igor Belanov up front. Another Kiev player, Vadim Yevtushenko, was introduced as a substitute. Only Spartak Moscow’s legendary 'keeper Rinat Dasaev, Zenit right-back Nikolay Larionov and Dinamo Minsk midfield turbo Sergei Aleinikov were not from the club coached, quite obviously, by Lobanovsky himself. That team took the tournament by storm, and only some very unfortunate referee decisions, coupled with significant psychological problems, caused their premature exit at the hands of Belgium in the last 16.
Two years later, when USSR reached the final at Euro '88, there were seven Kiev starters, this time including midfield schemer Gennady Litovchenko and striker Oleg Protasov, close friends who were bench material in Mexico, but were promoted after joining Dinamo from Dnepr Dnepropetrovsk in 1987. That’s how Lobanovsky liked it. Cohesion was extremely important for him. It is proving to be equally important this summer for Dick Advocaat’s Russia, aka Zenit.
Advocaat worked with Zenit for more than three years. He led the Gazprom-financed club to their first league title in 2007, winning the UEFA Cup a few months later. The Dutchman is responsible for turning Konstantin Zyryanov into a world-class midfielder after signing him as a 29-year-old under-achiever from relegated Torpedo Moscow. He helped an unstable character like Igor Denisov to become one of the most tactically disciplined players you will witness at this tournament. He improved Aleksandr Anyukov’s versatility on the right wing, and let Andrei Arshavin flourish like never before. He brought Roman Shirokov to Zenit, even though his astonishing development is down to current Italian coach Luciano Spalletti. He even had the pleasure to work for one season with Aleksandr Kerzhakov, prior to his transfer to Sevilla in January 2007, which ultimately cost him the place in Euro 2008 squad. He knows them all.
Spain are based around Barcelona, Germany resemble Bayern Munich, past and present, but they don’t come close to what Russia assembled this time. Quite significantly, three non-Zenit players in the line-up – Alan Dzagoev, Sergei Ignashevich and Aleksei Berezutsky – are all from CSKA Moscow, while the fourth, Yuri Zhirkov, currently at Anzhi Makhachkala, was also brought up at CSKA. Basically, Russia are a two-club national team. Their mutual understanding is better than any other outfit at the Euros.
All that doesn’t mean we should get carried away after their first impressive showing. Zenit are no world-beaters, and their mental problems were evident for all to see when they were eliminated by Auxerre in the Champions League qualifiers two years ago, or hopelessly succumbed to Benfica in Lisbon this very March. Kerzhakov, although extremely instrumental is the fluent attacking play, was woefully wasteful in front of goal, and Russia will hope that doesn’t affect his confidence. The defence was rarely tested by the naïve Czech front line, with Milan Baros clearly not fully fit. When it was, Vaclav Pilar posed significant problems to the slow central defence with his lightning pace. That critical issue will remain unsolved, and Russia could easily pay very high price for it against quality opposition.
Additionally, it might be argued that Advocaat’s team is easier for opponents to study. While their style is mainly based on unpredictable movements of the front players, with Kerzhakov, Arshavin, Dzagoev and especially Shirokov frequently wandering out of their natural positions, thus being very difficult to mark, they still can be studied thoroughly and will never pose a global tactical surprise – just the minor ones.
Versus Czech Republic, though, those countless “minor surprises” proved to be crucial. Now it remains to be seen if the system works against better teams in the knockout stages. Lobanovsky’s obsession with cohesion eventually failed to win him international trophies. Could Advocaat possibly go one better?