Russia

Road to the finals

Look away all England fans. Despite Russia’s miserable record both in qualifying and competing for major tournaments, an exceptional campaign secured their spot in Austria and Switzerland and, in the process, condemned one of the international game’s heavyweights to a summer at home.

Having endured a particularly disappointing qualifying campaign for the 2006 World Cup, Yuri Semin stepped down as coach and was replaced by one of the modern game’s top managers, Guus Hiddink. His job was simple – get to Euro 2008. However, with a qualifying group containing the highly talented Croatians, perennial underachievers England, the ever tricky Israelis, and Macedonia, Estonia and Andorra, doing his job was hardly going to be a breeze.

Nevertheless, the campaign got off to an excellent start. Home advantage proved decisive as, coming up against the dangerous Croatians, they secured a valuable point. Another draw followed but, with the opponents Israel, celebrations were decidedly mooted, particularly with the Israeli equaliser coming so late on in the piece.

Finally, the Russians started to pick up some victories. Yet another home game, this time against Estonia, produced three points, thanks to goals from Pavel Pogrebnyak and Dmitry Sychev. This was followed by two more professional 2-0 wins, first against Macedonia away and then at Estonia’s expense.

With England floundering, the Russians continued to capitalise and rack up the points. Andorra were put to the sword in clinical fashion, as Aleksandr Kerhakov’s quick hat-trick and Sychev secured an easy win, and Croatia again failed to break through the Iron Curtain, giving Russia another point.

Croatia were nevertheless in pole position going into the final stages of qualification, while England had also recovered somewhat. It was evident that Russia’s chances depended on the two games against Steve McClaren’s troops. The first of these could not have gone much worse for the Russians, as England made a mockery of their challenge by dispatching them 3-0 at Wembley Stadium. However, the Russians incredibly exacted revenge for that defeat. The Russian winter proved a crucial leveller yet again, as Russia recovered from an early Wayne Rooney goal with two goals from Roman Pavlyuchenko to secure victory.

Even more incredible than this, the Russians failed to capitalise on such a win. Away from comfortable home surroundings, the Israelis did England a massive favour by winning 2-1. Hopes rested on Croatia securing a point (or better), while the Russians took on Andorra. As England sensationally collapsed to a 3-2 defeat at Croatia’s hands, Sychev notched the solitary goal in the game against Andorra and, against all the odds, Russia were into the finals.

Manager

One of the most sought after managers in world football, Guus Hiddink has a fine pedigree in club and international football, and his stock has only risen since taking over with Russia. However, he is also not one for sticking around, having managed no fewer than 11 clubs in his two decades of management.

As is the way with so many successful managers, Hiddink’s career as a professional was largely unremarkable. Starting in 1967 with De Graafschap in the Netherlands, the midfielder enjoyed stints at PSV Eindhoven and NEC before retiring with his first club in 1981.

His transition to management was immediate, taking the assistant manager’s job at Graafschap the following season. Hiddink moved to PSV Eindhoven in 1984 in the same position, but was eventually elevated to the manager’s job in 1987. His impact was dramatic and immediate, as Eindhoven won their only European Cup with Hiddink at the helm in 1988 and also picked up back-to-back Eredivisie titles. Hiddink moved abroad in 1990, first to Fenerbahce in Turkey and then to Valencia in Spain, before the national team post beckoned in 1994.

His time with Holland was relatively successful, as the side recovered from a disappointing Euro 1996 to reach the semi-finals of the 1998 World Cup, only to lose out in agonising circumstances to Brazil. Hiddink again opted to move on, this time to Real Madrid, but the decision proved disastrous. He was sacked within a season and spent the remainder with Real Betis before re-entering the international arena with South Korea.

Again, Hiddink’s impact was dramatic to say the least. With home town advantage, the South Korean side were galvanised under Hiddink’s leadership, reaching the semi-finals and sensationally defeating Italy and Spain in the process. Leaving on a high yet again, Hiddink made his way back to PSV Eindhoven and enjoyed yet more success, picking up three Eredivisie titles.

Departing for Australia in 2005, his short tenure there was arguably as successful. Charged with qualifying for the World Cup 2006, Hiddink did exactly that and even challenged the eventual winners right down to the wire, before going out in controversial circumstances. Hiddink’s golden touch made him the hottest of properties and Russia secured his services with a lucrative deal. Thus far, Hiddink has repaid the investment in his services, as he always has, and if his past exploits are anything to go by, the Russians will be enjoying one hell of a Euro 2008.

Three to watch

Aleksandr Kerzhakov

One of Russia’s most potent attacking sources, Kerzkhakov is also one of the few members of the squad with experience at the highest level in club football. A highly successful striker for Zenit St. Petersburg from 2001 to 2006, he banged in 64 goals in 159 games and attracted the attentions of Spanish side Sevilla. Eventually moving as part of a partnership deal with Zenit, he spent a decent season with Sevilla, despite being used for periods as a substitute, and won the UEFA Cup with the club.

Sadly, the change in managers at Sevilla marked an end to his time with Sevilla and, after being frozen out, Kerzhakov moved back to Russia with Dinamo Moscow. His worth for the national side is obvious though and he proved a vital part of the team’s qualification campaign. At the age of 25, he is in his prime and, if Russia pull off a surprise or two, he will likely be behind it.

Dmitry Sychev

The most promising player to come out of Russia for quite some time, Sychev has been hailed as ‘the Russian Michael Owen’ due to his goalscoring exploits and pace. Starting his career in 2000 with FC Spartak Tambov, he moved over to Spartak Moscow in 2002, but only spent a short period there, due to the opportunity presented to him by Marseille in France.

Unfortunately, he was mainly used as a substitute with Marseille and, after two years, moved back to Russia with Lokomotiv Moscow. Sychev’s fame in his home country is unquestioned, and he won the Russian Footballer of the Year trophy in 2004/2005. He has also become a pivotal part of the national team since making his debut at just 18 years old in 2002 (he is the youngest player to receive a cap). As Euro 2008 looms, Sychev may justify his intriguing tag as Mikhail Owen, so keep an eye out.

Igor Akinfeev

A truly exceptional prospect, goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev is arguably the most important player in a side somewhat lacking in qualify defenders. Making his debut with CSKA Moscow’s first-team at just 17 years old, he is now ensconced as the side’s first-choice goalkeeper and is considered one of the finest in Europe, all at just 22 years of age. Akinfeev also knows what it’s like to lift a trophy or two, having won the Russian League three times and, more impressively, the UEFA Cup in 2004/2005.

Now established as the national team’s top keeper, plenty of Europe’s best clubs will have their eye on him going into Austria and Switzerland, including Arsenal. One thing’s for certain – he’ll certainly have some work to do against Europe’s top international sides.

Win or lose?

The bookies are not particularly sure about the Russians, reflecting the x-factor that is Guus Hiddink and the rather erratic performances they’ve been serving up both in getting to Austria and Switzerland and in preparation. William Hill are singularly unconvinced, quoting 40/1, while 888 Sport and Ladbrokes are a little more reserved, both plumping for 28/1.