International

Euro 2016 a stepping stone for Russia

2015-12-11 17:30
Denis Cheryshev (Supplied)

Cape Town - For Russia, it's all about the home World Cup in 2018, but the European Championship is a great practice run.

Fewer than six months ago, it seemed as if qualifying could turn into an embarrassment as Russia floundered outside the automatic qualifying places with just two wins from its previous 10 competitive games under Fabio Capello.

That all changed after the Italian coach departed in July.

Under his replacement Leonid Slutsky, Russia won all of its four remaining qualifying games to overtake Sweden and secure an automatic qualifying spot.

Still, some worries persist for Russia, especially regarding its inability to break down determined defenses and resist counterattacks. Both vulnerabilities were on show against lowly Moldova in October, when Russia struggled to a 2-1 win in front of a hostile crowd.

It's also an aging team, especially in defense, where the first-choice center-back partnership is the CSKA Moscow duo of 36-year-old Sergei Ignashevich and 33-year-old Vasily Berezutsky, who have superb tactical nous but are increasingly lacking in pace.

Slutsky has taken a short-term view so far, removing many of the young players who tried out under Capello and bringing in veterans like the 34-year-old right-back Oleg Kuzmin, who was handed an international debut in September.

Here is a look at Russia's top three players and its coach, Leonid Slutsky: 

IGOR AKINFEEV

The undisputed No. 1 keeper for Russia, Akinfeev knows Slutsky's approach inside out, having played under him for the last six years at CSKA. However, he is prone to embarrassing errors under pressure, such as letting a shot slip through his fingers against South Korea at the World Cup. 

ARTYOM DZYUBA

Dzyuba has blossomed over the last year, pushing veteran forward Alexander Kerzhakov out of the Zenit St. Petersburg and Russia teams and into semi-retirement. He finished with an impressive eight goals from eight games in qualifying. 

DENIS CHERYSHEV

Still only a fringe player for Real Madrid, the winger is Russia's main emerging star ahead of the World Cup. Cheryshev earned unwanted fame when Real was thrown out of the Spanish Copa del Rey this month for including him in the team when he was supposed to be serving a suspension. 

COACH: LEONID SLUTSKY

Slutsky's appointment in August ended a nine-year run of foreign coaches at the helm of the Russian national team. He still splits his time with club duties at CSKA and faces high expectations from Russian fans, who are looking forward to the World Cup and have fond memories of a run to the 2008 European Championship semifinals under Guus Hiddink.

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