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?