No other team presents such a huge gap between football potential and mental strength. That is why Russia are out, with wet pants, once again.
You can’t help feeling sorry for Konstantin Zyryanov - the midfielder who overcame the most devastating personal tragedy ten years ago, when his wife committed suicide and killed their daughter by jumping from their eighth-floor flat.
He only became an international star at 29. Now almost 35, he has no hope of retaining his place in the national team that is going to be rebuilt ahead of the home World Cup in 2018. This was his last tournament. He never knew that facing Poland would become his final game in the red shirt. Zyryanov missed the fixture versus Greece with fever, and watched his team-mates crashing out, when the expectations were so high. But were they?
Zyryanov’s most famous quote will help us to understand the psychological problems faced by Russian footballers for quite a long time now. After gloriously beating England in the Euro 2008 qualifiers, coming from behind thanks to a Roman Pavlyuchenko brace, the Zenit midfielder stood in front of a journalist who told him: “Everything is in your hands now”.
Giggling quite awkwardly, Zyryanov promptly answered: “Yeah, but I hope we don’t wet our pants in Israel. That would be so much like us if we do!” And they did! Russia lost 2-1 in Tel Aviv, and only qualified for the tournament thanks to that crazy Croatian night at Wembley, starring Scott Carson and “the wally with a brolly”.
Russia arrived in Austria and Switzerland with no expectations whatsoever, and shocked the world with outstanding attacking play, beating Holland in the quarter-final that went down as one of the most impressive games in history.
That sums up Russia. Their potential is huge, but for some bizarre reason they are only capable of fulfilling it when nobody takes them seriously. Once the Russians are considered favourites, they tend to fall apart.
You don’t have to think too hard to come up with recent examples of such tragedies. The defeat in Israel was only one of them. The unthinkable fiasco against Slovenia during the 2010 World Cup qualification playoffs wasn’t that unthinkable for Russian fans and players.
Guus Hiddink’s side played with confidence in the first leg in Moscow and took a 2-0 lead. Then they conceded a very late goal to Slovenian substitute Nejc Pecnik, and from that moment everybody somehow had a feeling nothing good would happen in the return leg in Maribor. Those fears became reality, as Marko Devic scored at the end of the first half, just like Giorgos Karagounis on Saturday. None of the stars on the field believed they could recover from that blow against clearly inferior, but equally clearly more motivated, opponents.
Less than a year later, Zenit, the club that provides the backbone of the national side, meekly succumbed to Auxerre in the Champions League qualifiers. The team that swept aside everything in front of them en-route to sensationally winning the UEFA Cup in 2008, never looked mentally capable of overcoming a very mediocre French outfit. They won 1-0 in St Petersburg and were “shocked” 2-0 in the return. Only nobody was really shocked. There was a scent of Slovenian déjà vu in the air.
Even in the friendlies ahead of Euro 2012 you could sense this psychological paradox. The very team that almost lost to Lithuania reserves went on and thrashed Italy 3-0 just a few days later. The problem of Dick Advocaat was obvious – his team got a very cruel draw. Yes, you read it right.
Group A, with Poland, Greece and Czech Republic was way too easy for Russia to progress from. They became the clearest favourites possible, they had no room for error. They just couldn’t fail to reach the quarter-finals at the very least. That is exactly the reason they did eventually fail, and thrashing the hapless Czechs in the first game only made matters worse.
Of course, losing to Greece was unthinkable. That is exactly why many Russian fans expected it. To make the threat much more serious, the players expected it as well. The front-page headline of the biggest Russian sports newspaper Sport-Express quoted keeper Vyacheslav Malafeev saying: “The first goal will be very important”. Just think about it for a second.
Russia were facing a weaker team, only needing a draw to qualify from the group. How on Earth can the first goal be so important? If Russia concede it, all they have to do is score one themselves. Why should it be such a big deal if you believe in yourselves? Can you possibly imagine Manuel Neuer, Iker Casillas, Gigi Buffon or even Shay Given saying something like that in similar circumstances?
But Malafeev thought the first goal would be very important. His team-mates thought it would be very important. That is the only reason it was so important. After conceding it, in the very last second of the first half, none of Russia’s players really believed they could avoid the inevitable catastrophe. Just like in Maribor, just like in Auxerre, they were finished there and then.
They continued trying, knowing only too well all the shots would go wide. Sometimes agonizingly wide, like in the case of Alan Dzagoev’s header, but wide nonetheless. No other team presents such a huge gap between football potential and mental strength. That is why Russia are out with wet pants once again. If only they were drawn in the Group of Death, they might as well have gone all the way to the final.
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?
Look at all 368 players at Euro 2012, and it will be very difficult to find one whose fortunes changed more dramatically since the previous tournament than those of Roman Shirokov. His is the most unusual story, an ultimate tale of a late-bloomer, whose career took an extremely unexpected turn.
For quite a few years, since being kicked out of CSKA Moscow without playing a single second, Shirokov was considered an undisciplined alcohol-loving below-average midfielder. Then, in the beginning of 2008, Dick Advocaat surprisingly signed him at Zenit, thanks to a couple of good games at tiny Khimki. Not only that – the Dutchman decided to move the player into central defence. Impressive in the UEFA Cup, including the win against Rangers in the final at City of Manchester Stadium, he was surprisingly included by Guus Hiddink into his Euro squad, and even more astonishingly given the responsibility against Spain in the opener in Innsbruck.
That’s where it all went terribly wrong. Not only Shirokov proved incapable of stopping David Villa who bagged a hat-trick, he also allegedly claimed in a post-game interview that nobody told him the Valencia star is supposed to start for La Roja. That was way too much for Hiddink to swallow. The sorry newcomer was benched for the rest of the tournament, watching his teammates excel on their way to semi-finals, and never called again by the Dutchman. Some Russian pundits openly said he is simply not good enough for such a high level, and the awful Villa quote made so many headlines that Shirokov was basically thought to be nothing less than a village idiot. At 27, his career was apparently over before it really started.
Then two extremely significant events occurred. Firstly, Zenit sold Anatoliy Tymoshchuk to Bayern Munich in the summer of 2009. Six months later, Luciano Spalletti was signed as the next coach at the Gazprom-sponsored club. With Igor Denisov moved into Tymoshchuk’s holding position, there was a place in the more offensive midfield role up for grabs. The Italian coach put Shirokov into that spot. The results were imminent. Roman improved with every month, his game became more and more intelligent as his understanding with fellow midfielders, especially Denisov and Konstantin Zyryanov, became better. Suddenly, he looked like one of the best performers in the league. Even more importantly, it turned out he is not stupid at all. Quite the contrary – Shirokov’s outspoken remarks on Twitter showed an intelligent person who is brave enough to share his often provocative thoughts with everyone. Finally, he has come of age, both on and off the field.
2010 was great for Shirokov, and when Advocaat replaced Hiddink as Russia coach he immediately recalled his former protégé into the squad. 2011/12 record-long Russian season proved to be even better. Apart from playing a vital part in an extremely fluid and eye-pleasing Zenit midfield, Shirokov developed an uncanny habit of popping up in scoring positions when the opponents least expect that, in a manner not dis-similar to that of Frank Lampard. That was especially evident in the Champions League, when Roman scored braces against Portuguese giants, both in a crucial 3-1 win over Porto in the group stage and in a 3-2 triumph versus Benfica in the last 16, even though Zenit spectacularly failed to protect that lead in Lisbon.
He does that for the national team as well, and it is no surprise he feels at home in what is basically a Zenit line-up, with Denisov, Zyryanov, Andrey Arshavin and Aleksandr Kerzhakov all important starters for Advocaat. Shirokov scored the winner in Greece in November, was on target in Denmark in February, and last week netted twice versus Italy in Zurich. That counts for four of his six international goals. There is little doubt he arrived to Poland in a very rich form, and at 31 this might be his only chance to shine on the big stage, finally putting the 2008 ghost to rest.
Watch out for Shirokov’s clever movement on Friday versus the heavy Czech defence. You will see some exquisite through balls to Kerzhakov, endless interchanges with Zyryanov, and several perfectly timed sneaks into the penalty area. There will be a lot to tweet about.
Previously on the blog: The painful goalkeeping dilemma