Enigmatic. That’s the only word to describe the Russia team that will be lining out for the forthcoming World Cup.
Nobody – not least manager Stanislav Cherchesov – knows what to expect from a journeyman side that’s peppered with individual magic.
Qualifying for the tournament as hosts, Russia’s form in the past eighteen months has been sporadic at best.
A desperate showing at the Confederations Cup saw them tumble to defeat against Portugal and Mexico with victory over New Zealand offering cold comfort.
They’ve also been duly beaten in each of their last three friendlies against Brazil, France and Austria. Heading into their opening game against Saudi Arabia on the 14th June, expectations could barely be lower.
Stanislav Cherchesov is likely to adopt a back-three, particularly in winnable games against Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Against Uruguay, however, the wing-backs that are usually charged with attacking responsibilities will be asked to sit deeper.
His three-man midfield will be similarly flexible, bowing into defensive positions against gilded opponents whilst being allowed to play expansively against minnows.
Cherchesov’s central striker will likely be supported by two attacking midfielders, from whom much of Russia’s offensive impetus will be derived.
Key Player: Aleksandr Golovin
CSKA’s midfield artisan showed all of his capabilities against Arsenal in the Europa League.
The 21-year-old was outstanding across both legs, dispatching a wondrous free-kick at the Emirates Stadium.
Golovin is deadly across every midfield position, but expect him to be given a free role behind the dangerous Fedor Smolov and Alexei Miranchuk.
Regardless of how Russia perform at the tournament, Golovin is sure to depart for one of Europe’s biggest clubs in the summer. He may be young, but he is already top class.
Moscow expects on the 14th June. Saudi Arabia are arguably the weakest side at this summer’s showpiece and they will be expecting a difficult game against a riled-up host.
Provided Cherchesov’s men get the result that everybody anticipates, the game against Egypt in St. Petersburg could prove vital.
With Uruguay favourites to take the group, Mohameds Salah and Elneny could represent Russia’s biggest obstacle to qualification.
Ideally, progress to the next round should be secured before the face-off against Uruguay at the Cosmos Arena.
Prediction: First-round exit
Uruguay might have a young and relatively unproven squad but the South Americans should still boast enough quality to progress.
Egypt, meanwhile, are a dangerous team with an exceptional coach, having reached their first World Cup in nearly 30 years.
If Golovin and Miranchuk can sparkle, however, Russia may spring a surprise.
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