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Russia’s old guard fight to reverse half-decade of decline at Euro 2016

Football Soccer - Russia v Czech Republic - International Friendly

A lot had changed since Russia’s previous visit to the Tivoli-Neu stadium in Innsbruck.

Guus Hiddink’s buoyant side played there twice at Euro 2008, winning the second game 2-0 against Sweden with goals from their attacking totems Andrey Arshavin and Roman Pavlyuchenko; this time, in a friendly played on Wednesday 1 June, a small crowd rattled around the stands, significantly reduced in capacity since then, to witness a disjointed friendly against the Czech Republic, who eventually won by the odd goal in three with a last-minute effort from Tomas Necid.

“If I’m honest, when we arrived here I only realised it was the same stadium when the other guys told me,” said the defender Aleksei Berezutsky, who was a non-playing member of the squad that reached the semi-finals eight years ago. The truth is that the Russia side who face England on Saturday are barely recognisable themselves.

A number of old faces remain – Berezutsky, his twin brother, Vasili, the goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, the centre-back Sergei Ignashevich and the captain Roman Shirokov among them – but it has been a miserable period since that freewheeling summer in central Europe and even the flickers of optimism that rose early in the reign of Leonid Slutsky, who turned their qualifying campaign round when he first replaced Fabio Capello, have been dampened in recent weeks.

When Alan Dzagoev, the playmaker who had been transformed by Slutsky into a slick, driving force from deep, succumbed to a fractured metatarsal in May it was tempting to assume the die for the European Championship finals had already been cast. Dzagoev was the only player to come out of their early Euro 2012 exit with an enhanced reputation and now, at 25, is the nearest the country has to a top-level talent. Without him, and with the 34-year-old Shirokov struggling badly for form and fitness, Russia are virtually bereft of creativity in central areas and the stodginess that has characterised the past half-decade risks being a default setting.

There is not much time to form a Plan B and against the Czechs Slutsky trialled an ambitious-looking 4-3-3 with Oleg Shatov – the excellent Zenit St Petersburg winger upon whom much may now hinge – operating as part of the central trident. That does not look a viable setup for Russia’s opening Group B game but it may be useful if points are urgently required against Slovakia or Wales, both of whom are expected to provide the kind of deep-sitting, counterattacking opposition Slutsky’s team do not seem ideally disposed to break down.

Despite those recent hindrances, the broader problems are not especially new and it was four years ago, in an interview given before Euro 2012, that Arshavin suggested the team “lacks too much speed to be considered a favourite” for the tournament. That remains glaringly true at both ends of the pitch, although there was some cheer in Innsbruck when Aleksandr Kokorin, a forward once thought promising enough to have been linked with Arsenal but who endured a miserable first season at Zenit, beat Petr Cech from 20 yards to suggest a return to form.

Pundits and former players need little invitation to exacerbate the negativity and Sergei Yuran, the former Millwall striker and an international in the 1990s, was not voicing a minority view when he told Sport Express after the Czech Republic game that the team looked “empty” and was in serious trouble. “We don’t have players who stand out on the pitch and can drag the locomotive behind them,” he said and it was instructive that he went on to praise the 35-year-old Tomas Rosicky, who played only once for Arsenal all season but scored the Czechs’ first goal and was perhaps the liveliest player on show. Russian attitudes are “amateur” by comparison, he said. “People are spoiled by money. Life is good: selfies, aeroplanes, everything. So we have a lot and finish at 32.”

The figure of Rosicky’s former team-mate Arshavin, now long gone from the national setup and winding down in Kazakhstan with Kairat Almaty after a sharp decline, may not have been far from his mind but the current squad cannot be tarred with that brush. Nine of the 23 travelling to France are aged 30 or over and, if Russia lack verve, they do at least have a battle-hardened core of competitors who will work honestly and are motivated for one last push before, surely, the squad is significantly refreshed in the run-up to their home World Cup. A sharpened image of exactly how Tivoli-Neu looked back on 18 June 2008, when the Swedes were outplayed from start to finish, might serve as appropriate inspiration.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Nick Ames, for The Observer on Saturday 4th June 2016 14.00 Europe/London

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