Russia's march to Brazil began at the Euro 2012 tournament in Poland/Ukraine. The Russians, led by Dutch manager Dick Advocaat captured the attention of Europe with a comprehensive 4-1 thrashing of the Czech Republic in their opening game. The free-flowing, explosive Russian attack, a product of Advocaat's favored attacking 4-3-3 formation, made Russia look like a legitimate contender to go far.
But, just as suddenly as it emerged, the Russian attack disappeared. A 1-1 draw against hosts Poland and a 1-0 defeat to Greece saw Russia crash out in last place of their group. Advocaat
disappeared to Siberia was fired.
Russia decided to completely retool their philosophy when they chose their next manager: Fabio Capello. Capello had just managed England to a 2nd place group finish (USA! USA!) in South Africa, and helped the team qualify for Euro 2012 before abruptly resigning in February of 2012. Capello, an Italian, is known for his Italian-ness as a manager; he prefers a defensively sturdy setup over a more exposed attacking formation.
Surprisingly, this will be Russia's first World Cup since 2002. The Russians qualified one point ahead of Portugal in UEFA's Group F, splitting the two games with the Portuguese. Russia was led in qualifying by five goals from striker Aleksandr Kerzhakov, and the team's stout defense only allowed five goals in the 10 qualifying games.
Goalkeepers: Igor Akinfeev (CSKA Moscow), Yury Lodygin (Zenit St. Petersburg), Sergey Ryzhikov (Rubin Kazan).
Defenders: Vasili Berezutskiy (CSKA Moscow), Vladimir Granat (Dynamo Moscow), Andrey Eshchenko (Anzhi Makhachkala), Sergey Ignashevich (CSKA Moscow), Alexey Kozlov (Dynamo Moscow), Dmitry Kombarov (Spartak Moscow), Andrey Semenov (Terek Grozny), Georgi Schennikov (CSKA Moscow).
Midfielders: Denis Glushakov (Spartak Moscow), Igor Denisov (Dynamo Moscow), Alan Dzagoev (CSKA Moscow), Yury Zhirkov (Dynamo Moscow), Alexey Ionov (Dynamo Moscow), Pavel Mogilevets (Rubin Kazan), Alexander Samedov (Lokomotiv Moscow), Victor Faizulin (Zenit St Petersburg), Oleg Shatov (Zenit St. Petersburg), Roman Shirokov (Krasnodar).
Forwards: Maxim Kanunnikov (Amkar Perm), Alexander Kerzhakov (Zenit St Petersburg), Alexander Kokorin (Dynamo Moscow)
Sergei Ignashevich, Defender
To call Ignashevich "experienced" is to do a disservice to his accomplishments for club and country. He's been with CSKA Moscow since 2004, and has been a consistent starter for his entire tenure. Though he's not particularly tall (6'1"), or particularly fast, he is comfortable with the ball at his feet, and knows a thing or two about defensive positioning. Not only that, but I doubt Ronaldo could do much better on this free kick.
But Ignashevich also has another important function for this Russian squad. Though this will most likely be his – along with a whole generation of Russian veterans – last World Cup, Ignashevich is responsible for instilling hope in the Russian team and people for 2018, when Russia will play host. A strong showing in Brazil, led by an iconic central defender, could give the whole country a reason to be even more excited about hosting in four years.
Alan Dzagoev, Midfielder
It's almost shocking that Dzagoev is only 23 years old, given how long he's been hyped as Russia's player of a generation. Since being the youngest-ever Russian to receive a call-up, at 18, Dzagoev has made 30 appearances for his country, scoring eight goals. He always seems to be linked to some of the top squads in Europe, including Chelsea and Manchester United, but has never lived up to his immense potential for his club, CSKA Moscow.
Dzagoev is really a forward disguised as a midfielder. For his second goal in the Czech Republic game, Dzagoev made a run that most midfielders would never imagine, hanging on the shoulder of the last defender, taking just one touch, and finishing into the top corner. He led Russia with three goals at Euro 2012, raising hope for Brazil.
But under Capello he's failed to make much of an impact, with only two starts in 10 qualifying games. In order for Russia to advance, they'll need Dzagoev to recapture his 2012 form, even if it's as an impact substitute off the bench. With Shirokov out of the picture, Dzagoev's impact becomes all the more important.
In qualifying, however, Capello used a version of Advocaat's 4-3-3, but modified to function more like a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-5-1 when Russia was chasing the ball. Given their qualifying record and stinginess in allowing goals, Russia's primary strength under Capello, as you'd expect, was in defense, with Igor Akinfeev in goal, experienced Sergei Ignashevich at center-back, and veteran left-back Yuri Zhirkov. With a combined 210 caps between them, these three defensive stalwarts will be expected to keep clean sheets and support Russia's talented midfielders.
It was that midfield which propelled Russia to such a promising start at Euro 2012, particularly Roman Shirokov and Alan Dzagoev, a classic defense-offense tandem in the middle of the pitch. Shirokov, however, just pulled out of Brazil with a back injury. There's no obvious replacement in the Russian squad for any players who combine Shirokov's defensive mettle and long-range scoring ability, which may force Capello to employ a more purely defensive midfielder.
Dzagoev will try to funnel passes to Kerzhakov, a small, shifty forward who often plays more like an attacking midfielder. With Kerzhakov fronting the attack, it's not difficult to picture the Russian offense running circles around opponents, but at the same time it's also not difficult to imagine them being overwhelmed by more physical defenders.
There are no easy draws at any World Cup, but Russia did manage what appears to be a slightly less difficult group, at least on paper. Many would rate Algeria as the weakest of the African squads, and South Korea is somewhat inconsistent, though dangerous at their best. Even if Russia loses to group favorites Belgium in their second match, an opening win against South Korea should generate enough momentum to lock up second place for the Russians.
June 17, 6 p.m.: Russia vs. South Korea at Arena Pantanal
June 22, 12 p.m.: Belgium vs. Russia at Maracanã
June 26, 12 p.m.: Algeria vs. Russia at Arena de Baixada
Top image by Sam Woolley; photos via Getty