Andrew Flint –
Russia vs San Marino – Saturday, June 8, 17:00 BST/18:00 CEST – Mordovia Arena, Saransk – Russia
Three years ago Russia were gearing up to do battle in the ill-fated Euro 2016 finals in France. Such was the lack of foresight that Artur Yusupov was called up as a late replacement based almost entirely on the basis that he was already holidaying in the same Monaco hotel as the national team and the then-Zenit St. Petersburg journeyman admitted he didn’t even have boots with him when he reported for duty. As if the tournament itself wasn’t an embarrassment enough, the horrific violent clashes between Russian and English fans in the almost unpoliced streets of Marseille left a bitter taste that failed to be sweetened by the champagne that flowed all too publically into Aleksandr Kokorin and Pavel Mamaev’s nightclub glasses.
Although the road has been bumpy in parts, Stanislav Cherchesov’s stewardship since then has been mightily impressive. Out went the old guard, and in have come a thrilling generation of talent earning impressive game time. That Fedor Chalov, the Russian Premier League’s top goalscorer at just 21, is only slightly unfortunate not to have a regular starting place speaks volumes for the confidence and range of options available.
Different formations have been toyed with, personalities have been shaped, and a new-found belief has begun to shine through. Although the brief Nations League campaign didn’t end in a group win, it did leave Russia in pole position to benefit from UEFA’s new system that will in all likelihood see them be granted a playoff place.
Even in defeat in their opening Euro 2020 qualification group match against Belgium there were enough glimpses of beginning to challenge the World’s elite beyond the hedonistic bubble of last summer. Denis Cheryshev enjoyed a belated breakout international season and scored a sublime tight finish in Brussels, fresh after his explosive tournament. Backing him up are Zelimkham Bakaev and Reziuan Mirzov, while Magomed-Shapi Suleymanov will surely be blooded over the next season or two.
When the lowest ranked international side in the world travels to a country of 143 million people having not scored a goal since 2017, even the most optimistic of observers couldn’t fail to see this fixture as little more than yet another ritual drubbing. San Marino have limped through 14 full qualifying campaigns since their official debut in 1990, and have won just once in their entire history. There are only three goalscorers in the current squad – all of whom have scored once – and in 29 years and over 150 international matches, there have only been 26 goals scored by San Marino.
The statistics could go on endlessly to demonstrate quite how far behind San Marino are to the rest of the footballing community, yet alone Russia themselves. From where does the motivation come from then? There has in the past been talk of a second tier of qualifying being introduced with promotion and relegation introduced. In this proposed system, the minnows would be theoretically spared the humiliating thrashings routinely handed out while there would be a more even level of competition.
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Then again, however sparse even the close shaves may be, they represent moments as historic as a World Cup quarter-final is for Russia. With a little over quarter of an hour to go in their last qualifier at home to Scotland, San Marino were only 1-0 down. When the late Graham Taylor’s England travelled to face the land-locked nation in USA ‘94 qualification, Davide Gualtieri scored what was then the fastest goal ever recorded in a FIFA World Cup match was scored by the locals after 8.3 seconds.
It is highly unlikely that this match will reproduce a moment as significant as that. There is next to no pressure on Russia already to qualify from this group after Scotland’s struggles and their 4-0 destruction of Kazakhstan in March, not to mention the safety net of having all but secured a playoff place via the Nations League. If at least 13 of League A’s 16 teams claim one of 20 direct paths to next summer’s finals via the Euro 2020 qualifiers, Russia – as the highest-ranked League B team not to win their division, and therefore a League B playoff place – would claim one of League A’s playoff spots.
The question only remains over how much damage can be limited from the visitors’ perspective.
Russia vs San Marino – Players to Watch
Zelimkhan Bakaev #25 – Russia
Given the nature of the opposition and Cherchesov’s reasonably youthful squad selection, this home game presents a golden opportunity for Bakaev to prove he deserves a place in both his parent club and national teams’ setups. After a fantastic season out on loan at Arsenal Tula, where he racked up eight league goals for the Premier League’s great entertainers, international recognition has come as a rightfully deserved prize for the young Ingushetia-born winger. With Denis Chershev out with a stretched ligament injury, Bakaev’s pace and eye for goal will offer a threat out wide that San Marino will do well to close down if the youngster is given free rein.
Matteo Vitaioli #11 – San Marino
Although it is hard to be proud of such records, Vitaioli is the joint highest goalscorer in the current San Marino setup with one. The context of FIFA’s 211th ranked side having not even scored since a 2018 World Cup qualifier almost two years ago shows that even a single strike is noteworthy, and Vitaioli’s almost earned a historic point away to Lithuania. There is little hope of San Marino keeping last summer’s World Cup quarter-finalists limited to a low tally of goals, but some measure of respect may be gained by one of the few Sammarinese internationals to have come close to Serie A football.
Futbolgrad Network Prediction: Russia vs San Marino – 6-0
Russia vs San Marino – Match Stats
- Russia faced San Marino once before in competitive qualification almost a quarter of a century ago, winning both home and away with a combined goal difference of 11-0.
- Russia have kept clean sheets in their last two competitive home matches, both in their UEFA Nations League campaign.
- In two decades of European Championships qualification, Russia have lost just twice at home, on both occasions by a single goal.
- San Marino have never won a European Championships qualifier. In fact, in three decades, they have avoided defeat just once.
- Away from home in Euros qualification, they have managed just two goals, the last coming five years ago.
- They haven’t scored in any of their last ten matches in all formats, a run of nearly two years.
Russia vs San Marino -Possible Lineups
Guilherme – Dzhikia, Belyaev, Kudryashev – Fernandes, Oblyakov, Golovin, Bakaev – Anton Miranchuk, Dzyuba, Mirzov
Manager: Stanislav Cherchesov
Benedettini – Battistini, Simoncini, Brolli, Palazzi – Berardi, Enrico Golinucci, Alessandro Golinucci, Vitaioli – Gasperoni – Nanni
Manager: Franco Varrella
Andrew Flint is an English freelance football writer living in Tyumen, Western Siberia, with his wife and two daughters. He has featured on These Football Times, Russian Football News, Four Four Two and Sovetski Sport, mostly focusing on full-length articles about derbies, youth development and the game in Russia. Due to his love for FC Tyumen, he is particularly interested in lower league Russian football and is looking to establish himself in time for the 2018 World Cup. Follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewMijFlint.