Jun 6, 2014, 3:00 PM EDT
Getting to know…Russia: With manager Fabio Capello’s stamp firmly planted on the Russian squad, the country is looking for its first ever trip out of the group stage at a World Cup. They’ve patched up things at the back, and had a strong, simplistic approach to matches, very typical of Capello’s style. A first-place finish in their qualifying group (ahead of Portugal) signaled their intentions for Brazil, and with a roster almost entirely made up of domestic-based players, Russia hopes their attempts to build from within can help Capello prove he’s more than just a club manager.
Record in qualifying: With Russia finishing first in UEFA’s Group F, it showed they meant business. They finished a point above Portugal, with the pair facing little competition from anyone else in the 6-team group. By beating out Portugal at the top, Russia avoided a potential pitfall in the playoff round. However, they’ve also set the bar for themselves high at Brazil, something that could potentially come back to haunt Capello should they fail to make it out of the group stage yet again.
A look at Group H: Things are going to be much tougher for Russia in the World Cup group stage than it was in the qualifying round. With Belgium and South Korea alongside Algeria, nothing is a given. It seems to be somewhat of a 2-horse race, but Russia’s been here before and flopped. In 2002, a 1-0 loss to Japan proved their group-stage demise, and Capello will be hoping to avoid the same against South Korea, lest the streets of Moscow again rise up in riots. Anything below 2nd place in their group should be considered a serious disappointment.
June 17, 18:00, Cuitabá: Russia vs. South Korea
June 22, 12:00, Rio de Janeiro: Belgium vs. Russia
June 26, 18:00, Curitiba: Algeria vs. Russia
Star Player: Alan Dzagoev, Igor Akinfeev
Many have jumped on the Dzagoev bandwagon before the World Cup, with Russia’s number-10 impressing plenty with his grace on the ball and flow off it. However, it would be remiss to brush by his CSKA Moscow teammate and reigning Russian Premier League Player of the Year, goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev. With the two club teammates in charge of things at the front and back, Russia is in good hands.
At just 23 years old, Dzagoev is a rising star. He’s tested under pressure, and led CSKA Moscow to the Russian Premier League title as the club won its final 10 games to beat out Zenit St. Petersburg by a single point. He also finished joint-top goalscorer at Euro 2012, alongside these names: Mario Balotelli, Cristiano Ronaldo, Mario Mandzukic, Mario Gomez, and Fernando Torres. Quite the crowd. But the beauty of Dzagoev is that as good as he is at finding the back of the net, he’s even better at creating chances for his teammates, and striker Alexander Kherzakov will benefit greatly.
With Dzagoev at the front, Akinfeev is the rock at the back. Capello’s defense-first mentality has put the 28-year-old into the spotlight, and many are claiming he’s the best Russian keeper since “The Black Spider” Lev Yashin. The Akinfeev-led defense allowed a paltry five goals during their 10 UEFA qualification matches, and you can expect more of the same at the World Cup from the battle-tested netminder who’s been in goal for Russia since he was just 18 years old.
Manager: Fabio Capello
Known for a stifling defensive approach that still promotes attacking play, Capello saw plenty of success at the club level but is still trying to make his mark on the international game. However, he is also known for having disagreements with many important figures along the way, and isn’t afraid to back down from his position. His defensive style earned the disdain of many during his reign at Real Madrid, but it’s become an important piece of Russia’s run to the World Cup. With his failures in South Africa at the helm of England still in the back of the minds of many, he would do himself a World of good if he can make it past the group stage with the Russians.
Secret Weapon: Attacking flow
With the team so focused on defense, it’s surprising how the team can still make its way forward with such continuity. The country’s hard-working midfield is a key component, and getting the ball to Dzagoev will be important. However, it’s not as difficult for them as some might think, and the Russians should score some entertaining goals in Group H play.
Prediction: With South Korea definitely posing a threat, Russia’s midfield pegs back a young Heung Son-Min and Capello gets the key victory in their first match, propelling them to a second-place finish in Group H and the country’s first foray into the knockout round.
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