Heading to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, the team from Russia is positioned better than in any other in their group. Since the Soviet Union disbanded, Russia has not fared well. In fact, they did not qualify for the previous two World Cups. Now, they will arrive in Brazil as the group leader in the qualifying stage ahead of Portugal, and the weight of being the next host on their shoulders.
This World Cup will set a tone for the country before the world arrives in Russia in 2018. While the Russian squad should advance out of the group, the pressure they are feeling is something that many other teams do not understand.
There has been some political banter tossed around asking Russia to be banned from this World Cup and to have their host application for 2018 withdrawn based on the proceedings in the Crimea area. There are others calling for Russia to be stripped of the 2018 hosting duties based on the country’s anti-gay legislation.
There is already a petition on change.org with over 62,000 signatures in support of moving the competition from Russia. The players do not directly have any control over this, so it is only through their play that they can distract others from the politics.
At this point, the team can only focus on their play in Brazil. The federation hired Fabio Capello to lead them to the World Cup, and qualification means they can give hope to their fans for 2018. Capello has won 10 of the 17 matches, including seven of 10 in the qualification process. Russia heads to Brazil with a good group set up and the chance to play as one of the final 16.
The attack starts and ends with Alexander Kokorin and Alexander Kerzhakov. Kokorin led Russia in goals during the qualifying stage. Kerzhakov has scored 24 goals in his 78 appearances with the national team. Russia generally gets a lot of scoring help from players that shift around the midfield. Viktor Fayzulin made his debut with the team in 2012 and has registered four goals in 16 total appearances.
Given the scoring prowess and the mixture of veterans with young players, many consider the Russian midfield their strongest asset. The midfield is led by captain Roman Shirokov. He has held many roles in the midfield in his 41 appearances for Russia, but was featured in a more advanced position in qualifying. Shirokov played in all 10 qualifying matches. He is also the only player from the club Krasnodar on the team.
Igor Denisov has become the defensive midfielder with the same number of appearances as Shirokov. Having scored eight goals in 30 career appearances, 23-year-old Alan Dzagoev brings a level of craftiness to the midfield. Aside from Shirokov and Denisov, many Russian midfielders have taken on whatever role they are asked to play, including in defense.
This is where the veterans of the squad play. Igor Akinfeev has been the No. 1 keeper since 2005 and that will not change in Brazil. He has also been with the same club since visiting CSKA Moscow at the age of four.
The defense is led by Sergei Ignashevich, who can reach 100 caps with his national team this summer. He also featured in each of the 10 World Cup qualifying matches. Vasili Berezutski, who has a twin brother with an outside chance at Brazil, is the other anchor of the back line. Aside from Dmitri Kombarov, Capello’s other defensive options have very little experience with the senior team.
Russia should be able to get out of their group in second place behind Belgium. Injuries to some key players on the Belgium squad give them an outside chance at the top seed in Group H. The round of 16 match will be tough regardless of which teams advance from the group of death. It could be Russia and the USMNT in the round of 16. Regardless, Russia’s run will end in this round.