By Saul Pope –
Perhaps the first thing to understand about Russian coach Leonid Slutsky is that he has a conservative approach to team selection. The titles he has won at CSKA Moscow in recent years have been with a squad with a settled first eleven and a few reliable, regular substitutes.
This is an approach he has continued with Russia where—as opposed to Fabio Capello’s more eccentric selections—Slutsky has tinkered with, rather than altered, his predecessor’s failing side. Notable, is that up front, Artem Dzyuba, has taken centre stage from Aleksandr Kokorin—who is increasingly looking like he won’t fulfill his early promise. Dzyuba has benefitted from a transfer to Zenit St. Petersburg, where he is working well with Hulk. He can look ponderous up front but is certainly a handful and has an instinct for scoring goals something that should benefit Russia at the European Championships (Euro 2016) next summer.
Slutsky’s Squad for Euro 2016 – No Experiments Allowed
Perhaps the only real shock has been the introduction of Rubin Kazan full back Oleg Kuzmin. A tenacious player who has spent much of his career in reasonable but not outstanding teams, Kuzmin started and scored in the crucial qualifying match against Montenegro. Perhaps the biggest surprise about Kuzmin’s call-up is his age—34. In this regard, he fits well into a defence where Sergey Ignashevich (36) and Alexey Berezutskiy (33) are regulars. There do not appear to be too many up-and-coming options to replace them, and given that they both play for Slutsky’s CSKA, it’s likely that they will still be in the side come the England game on June 11th. Their lack of pace could be telling.
In goal, Igor Akinfeev has been part of the Russian national team since he was a teenager, and despite increasing criticism over errors in big games, he is an excellent goalkeeper. Zenit’s Yuriy Lodygin is the second choice, but has also made a number of crucial mistakes recently—and for a time was even dropped by his club. There is an outside chance that Lokomotiv Moscow’s Guilherme, who has just received a Russian passport, will be in the squad as the third choice.
Midfield is Russia’s Greatest Strength
Midfield is where Russia has the most comprehensive strength. The stand out player is CSKA’s Alan Dzagoev—usually overlooked by Capello, he has rightly been brought back into the first eleven under Slutsky, and will definitely be a major factor for Russia’s ambitions at the Euro 2016 tournament. He has played well in a slightly deeper role than the more attacking position in which he made his name; with an eye for a killer pass, he has the potential to be Russia’s most dangerous player next summer. Zenit’s Oleg Shatov—who has been linked to the German club Borussia Dortmund, but has recently signed a new contract at Zenit—has not shown his best form for underachieving Zenit this season, and has had exasperating injuries to contend with. His work rate, passing, and shooting, however, make him another potential handful.
Other midfield mainstays are the neat efficient Igor Denisov, and Roman Shirokov, the captain and brains of the team. Off-the-field, however, events could keep both out of next summer’s squad. Denisov’s attitude has seen him fall out with team-mates and managers at both Zenit and Dinamo Moscow—he is a challenging character. Shirokov too has had issues with managers and apparently is not getting any match time at Spartak Moscow because a contract clause will automatically trigger a deal extension if he features in one more game. Shirokov is 34 and not the player he was two years ago and a lack of game time between now and June may mean that he doesn’t make the final squad.
Other midfielders to note, are Krasnodar’s Pavel Mamaev, whose rich vein of form this season has seen him get international action, and Denis Cheryshev, a Real Madrid academy product, who is finally getting a first team chance in La Liga. Up front, the rangy Fyodor Smolov is beginning to live up to expectations at Krasnodar and should feature, whereas Russia’s top scorer Aleksandr Kerzhakov, who’s been frozen out at Zenit, almost certainly won’t.
Russia Will Mostly Naturalize Players to Strengthen the Squad
There will probably be a naturalised player in the squad—many expect this to be one of three rumoured additions. Most valuable would be CSKA’s Brazilian full back, Mário Fernandes, but perhaps more acceptable to the public would be Schalke’s Roman Neustädter, a defensive midfielder also able to play in central defence. Neustädter has never plied his trade in Russia but was born in Dnipropetrovsk and speaks Russian fluently.
Another possibility is the German-Russian Konstantin Rausch, who was born in Kozhevnikovo, Tomsk Oblast, Russian SFSR. His family immigrated to Germany from Siberia when he was five years old. Rausch can play as both a left midfielder and left back, and currently plays for the Bundesliga team Darmstadt 98. According to the German magazine Kicker, Rausch already has all the necessary paperwork in place, and is even considering a move to the Russian Premier League following this season.
It may seem a long time before the final squad is decided for Euro 2016, but it is possible that little will change. For one thing, the Premier League season is almost two-thirds over: the winter break has commenced and the next round of matches isn’t until March. Bar Cheryshev and possibly Neustädter and Rausch, the entire squad will come from the domestic league— they only have ten or so games in which to impress. On top of this, most top-flight teams play a large number of foreign players, whereas there are limits in place to ensure that Russia-eligible players get their chance—the lack of choice was a pet hate of Capello’s.
Then again, Russia is a country of surprises. Perhaps in June there will be a squad member or two who are off the radar now—and perhaps, against either England or Wales, one will turn in an outstanding performance to become the surprise player of Euro 2016.
Saul Pope has been following Russian football since the mid nineties, and first saw a live game in 1998 (Zenit St. Petersburg vs Shinnik Yaroslavl’). He has been contributing to When Saturday Comes magazine for over a decade, with a particular focus on social, economic and political issues surrounding the game in Russia and, to a lesser extent, Ukraine. He has a particular passion for teams in and around St. Petersburg. A fluent Russian speaker, he graduated from the University of Surrey with a Master’s degree in the language. He lives in the UK, but travels back to Russia on a regular basis. You can follow Saul on Twitter @SaulPope.