We’ve finally made it! After four long years, the greatest sporting event on the planet has returned!
Get ready for bright summer days replete with nationalistic rallies across the globe as various ethnic groups band together to boisterously cheer on their respective motherlands while jeering those who hail from elsewhere! Prepare to be compelled into ignoring or ditching work in favor of staring in horror or delight at TV or computer screens while you guzzle alcohol to dull or sharpen the emotional reaction to the history being made right before your eyes! Ready your ears for lots and lots of talk about Russia’s efforts to forcibly dominate the world! Gear up for sober reflections equal parts sad and angry about just how far America has fallen!
Yes, in many ways this might not seem like much of a change of pace from life in the post-Trump world, but let us assure you that when you swap the tiki torches for vuvuzelas and engage in this brand of well-meaning jingoism while watching the 2018 World Cup—which kicks off next Thursday, June 14th—it will be an infinitely enjoyable experience and a much-needed respite from the bleak images our dystopian hellscape regularly vomits out at us in real life.
One topic we won’t entirely escape, though, is Russia. That’s because our Eastern European friends/enemies/covert overlords/convenient scapegoats (depending on your point of view) are hosting the event. And while we’re sure a number of Russians will make news during the month of the World Cup, it’s more likely that we’ll end up posting more highlights of local hooligan groups running around punching out their foreign counterparts than clips of the Russian national team players doing anything cool.
That’s because the Russian team kind of sucks. They aren’t exactly terrible, and they aren’t even the worst team in what is a weak Group A. But there isn’t anything remotely special about this bunch. Put it like this: it wouldn’t be a shock to see Russia sneak out of the group and make it to the first knockout round, but it would be a real shock if Russia won many more than one or two games or any new fans with their unexceptional play.
Because they’re hosting the shindig, Russia got an automatic berth for the World Cup and didn’t have to go through the qualifying process. Which was good for them, because the odds of this team making the tournament on the merits would’ve been pretty low. Russia don’t have anything they can reliably bank on to bring them victories or avoid defeat. Their defense is awful, their midfield is talented but unbalanced, and nobody on the World Cup roster has scored more than 12 goals on the international scene. There’s not much to like here.
Between creative types like Alan Dzagoev, Aleksandr Golovin, the Miranchuk twins Aleksei and Anton, and Denis Cheryshev, they have a few guys who could theoretically set up enough goal opportunities to keep Russia in contention for a Round of 16 place, especially when their rivals for the second-place spot in Group A are Saudi Arabia and a possibly Mohamed Salah-shorn Egypt. But while the World Cup in Russia will be a blast, and though some dumb and/or belligerent and/or racist and/or homophobic Ruskie fans are pretty much locks to make a few headlines over the next month, don’t count on the Russian team itself making much noise of either the positive or negative variety.
Goalkeepers: Igor Akinfeev (CSKA Moscow), Andrey Lunyov (Zenit Saint Petersburg), Vladimir Gabulov (Club Brugge)
Defenders: Mário Fernandes (CSKA Moscow), Sergei Ignashevich (CSKA Moscow), Andrei Semyonov (Akhmat Grozny), Fyodor Kudryashov (Rubin Kazan), Vladimir Granat (Rubin Kazan), Igor Smolnikov (Zenit Saint Petersburg), Ilya Kutepov (Spartak Moscow)
Midfielders: Yury Gazinsky (Krasnodar), Daler Kuzyayev (Zenit Saint Petersburg), Roman Zobnin (Spartak Moscow), Alan Dzagoev (CSKA Moscow), Anton Miranchuk (Lokomotiv Moscow), Aleksandr Golovin (CSKA Moscow), Yuri Zhirkov (Zenit Saint Petersburg), Aleksandr Samedov (Spartak Moscow), Aleksandr Yerokhin (Zenit Saint Petersburg), Denis Cheryshev (Villarreal)
Forwards: Fyodor Smolov (Krasnodar), Aleksei Miranchuk (Lokomotiv Moscow), Artem Dzyuba (Arsenal Tula)
If you don’t have a star player, usually of the attacking sort, to capture the attention of neutral fans and to win the team points, then the least a World Cup team can offer is a high-potential youngster who might use the competition to stage a couple break-out performances. Aleksandr Golovin is probably the closest thing Russia have to that latter kind of player.
Golovin is a true central midfielder of the textbook box-to-box variety. He’s best when on the run, either while charging at an opponent who has the ball and trying to snatch it away with his ever-churning and -nipping legs, or while galloping down the pitch with the ball at his feet, commanding the thing with firm and precise touches that are the hallmarks of his quite impressive dribbling ability.
Like all good all-around midfielders, Golovin has an equal passion for throwing himself into his defensive work in front of his own penalty area and for stampeding forward toward the opponent’s. It helps that his two best skills are probably his tackling and his silky dribbling. He’s always a threat to steal the ball away when a player within leg’s reach of him has it, and it’s exceptionally difficult to take the ball off of him when he’s picked it up. Combined with his rifle of a shot—which he can pop off with both feet—and his solid vision, he’s probably the most well-rounded attack-minded player in the Russian squad.
The CSKA Moscow man is already rumored to have caught the eye of some big Premier League teams. With a good showing this summer, he could very well convince Arsenal or Manchester United or any of his other admirers to snap him up. If any Russian is primed to make a name for himself at the World Cup for the things they do on the pitch, it’s probably Golovin. Best to check him out now, since you might be seeing a lot more of him in the near future.
Aleksey and Anton Miranchuk
Joining the aforementioned Golovin as Russia’s young contingent of exciting attacking prospects are Aleksey and Anton Miranchuk. The Miranchuks are cool because they are versatile, tricky with the ball at their feet, adept at slicing open defenses with incisive passes, and, best of all, they’re twins! The following video isn’t the best collection of highlights of either Aleksey’s or Anton’s skills, but it is a video that includes both brother-teammates and is set to an exquisitely bad dance track, so it’s the one we’ve chosen to show you:
The brothers Miranchuk both play for Lokomotiv Moscow, and both can feature pretty much anywhere in midfield or attack. Aleksey is the better of the two and saw his career blossom much quicker than his brother’s. Anton, though, has also emerged in his own right over the past season or so and is now seen as one of Russia’s better young talents. The two 22-year-olds aren’t likely to get many shared minutes out on the pitch together during the tournament, but the presence of either one will ever so slightly increase the chances that Russia put together a series of passes or a run or a shot that quickens your pulse a little. In this largely anemic Russian squad, that’s about as much as you can hope for.
Not very well. The one constant in manager Stanislav Cherchesov’s setup has been his three-at-the-back formations. Besides that, the rest of the formation, the style of play, and even the personnel are almost completely up for grabs. There have been wild shifts in who plays, where those who play line up, and how the team performs over recent matches, so it’s pretty hard to predict much of anything with these guys. All you can really bank on is that goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, defender Fyodor Kudryashov, and striker Fyodor Smolov will start, some combination of Golovin, the Miranchuk twins, and Dzagoev will support them in the other midfield and attack positions, and that the Russians will attempt to hang on for dear life so their porous defensive line doesn’t get run through too often.
Still, this isn’t necessarily a terrible thing for Russia’s chances to advance. Uruguay are the clear favorites of this group, and Saudi Arabia should be the punching bags. A win in the opener against the eminently beatable Saudis combined with a positive result against Egypt in the following match and Russia will be sitting pretty. It’s perfectly possible that Russia will secure the four or five points needed to get smashed up in the Round of 16, but the specifics of how they go about doing so probably won’t be of much particular interest.
All times Eastern
June 14, 11 a.m.: Russia vs. Saudi Arabia at Luzhniki Stadium
June 19, 2 p.m.: Russia vs. Egypt at Saint Petersburg Stadium
June 25, 10 a.m.: Uruguay vs. Russia at Samara Arena