This article is part of the Guardian’s Euro 2020 Experts’ Network, a cooperation between some of the best media organisations from the 24 countries who qualified. theguardian.com is running previews from two countries each day in the run-up to the tournament kicking off on 11 June.
Russia reached the quarter-finals of the 2018 World Cup on home soil but it was clear afterwards the squad needed rebuilding. The goalkeeper and captain, Igor Akinfeev, veteran centre-back Sergei Ignashevich and winger Aleksandr Samedov were three of the players who stepped down.
Three years later, it is indicative of the team’s fortunes that a major talking point has been whether Akinfeev would return for the Euros. Many believe he is still the best goalkeeper but the national team coach, Stanislav Cherchesov, was recently forced to give them some bad news: “At the moment Igor is not ready to help us and that’s the end of the discussion.”
Cherchesov had initially hopedLokomotiv Moscow’s Brazil-born Guilherme Marinato would fill the gap but he was substituted at half-time in a Nations League game against Serbia after conceding four goals and has not made the squad. The Dynamo Moscow captain, Anton Shunin, is set to start.
Defence is also a problem. Cherchesov has some talented but inexperienced centre-backs at his disposal in Igor Diveyev and Roman Yevgenyev, but no real alternatives to Spartak Moscow’s Georgi Dzhikiya and Akhmat Grozny’s Andrei Semyonov in the starting XI.
Russia are well-stocked in central midfield – there are several defensive, box-to-box and playmaker options – but have slimmer pickings on the wings. Andrei Mostovoy has not been a regular starter for Zenit this season and neither has his teammate Yuri Zhirkov. The former Chelsea player turns 38 in August but Cherchesov can’t see what the fuss is all about.
“What’s the point of looking at a passport?” he said. “I didn’t look at my own passport and played with the national team until I was 40 so why should I look at someone else’s passport? If a player brings a result today, he cannot be artificially stopped. Everything should happen naturally.”
The strikers are all tall, strong and not so skilful, but that seems to be the way Cherchesov likes it. Fyodor Smolov, a player with less barnstorming characteristics, did not make the squad. Cherchesov likes crosses to his tall forwards and wants his front line to be able to run and press hard for 90 minutes. It isn’t pretty but it can be effective.
A man of many formations – in the recent World Cup qualifiers against Malta, Slovenia and Slovakia he used 4-2-3-1, 4-4-1-1, 3-5-1-1, 4-3-1-2 and 3-4-2-1 – his starting setups are often difficult to predict but there is no doubt he believes in himself and the team.
A former goalkeeper, Cherchesov took over after Russia’s disastrous Euro 2016 campaign, when they finished last in their group. Despite their World Cup success, he is not very popular among fans. He is often very curt in interviews and his favourite phrase is “we don’t have [a word] in our dictionary”. He refuses to answer questions with the word “problem” in them; he calls them “difficulties”. For the same reason there are no “friendlies” and no “mistakes”. There are more than 20 words that Cherchesov doesn’t like. He speaks fluent German and English and lived in Austria after finishing his playing career; he often takes the team there for training camps.
Artem Dzyuba. Half of Russia’s fans absolutely love him (a phenomenon called Dzyubamania) and the other half absolutely hate him, in particular Spartak Moscow fans who have never forgiven him for joining Zenit. He divided opinion again last year when a lewd video was leaked. He was dropped from the national team and apologised, saying: “I am not perfect. We are all sinners and I can only blame myself.” Many public figures supported him, while there was a female-only march in Moscow with banners reading: “I am/we are Dzyuba” and “Not ashamed”.
Happy for a year’s delay
Goalkeeper Anton Shunin made his Russian debut in 2007 but has never really been the country’s No 1, until now. After Guilherme’s nightmare against Serbia the 34-year-old has become Cherchesov’s preferred option. Shunin was one of the few players who did not leave Dynamo Moscow in 2016 after their shock relegation. Perhaps the most famous moment of his career came in 2012 when visiting Zenit fans threw a firecracker that blew up right under his feet, injuring his ear and eye.
What the fans sing
Katyusha is an old Soviet song that has always been sung by Russian fans. The song is about a girl who sings for her loved one, a man serving in the army. The song was recorded in 1938 and became popular during the second world war, with a Soviet rocket launcher given the name.
What the fans say
«Судья продажная. Козел ты». “The referee has been bought. You are a goat.” This phrase belongs to the Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, who once shouted it over the PA at a league game.
«Можешь дома сидеть» “You could sit at home”. Coined by Roman Shirokov in response to an angry fan who told him: “I follow you all over Russia”.
«Ваши ожидания – ваши проблемы». “Your expectations are your problems”. Andrei Arshavin’s response to a fan after Russia’s poor Euro 2012.
Spartak Moscow fans helped older fans of the club with food deliveries and the club captain, Georgi Dzhikiya, and striker Aleksandr Sobolev helped fans deliver food to elderly people during lockdown. “Dzhikiya called us and said ‘guys, how can I help you?’” one fan said.
Gosha Chernov writes for Sport-Express.
Follow him on Twitter @G_o_s_h_a.
Read our profile of Aleksandr Sobolev here.