Naturalised Russians have boosted a squad which is worryingly low on quality.
While the bulk of Russia’s squad will be drawn from those who ensured qualification, there will almost certainly be one or two history-making additions.
In March, Lokomotiv Moscow’s Brazilian-born goalkeeper Guilherme became the first non-Russian to be capped by the national side – and he may not be the last.
The word “naturalizatsiya” – which involves giving citizenship to non-Russian players to enable them to represent the national team – has become common of late. It is a practice that has been widely used in futsal, in which Russia occupies a leading global position thanks to a number of naturalised Brazilians. And it is one that Leonid Slutsky seems keen to replicate in the 11-a-side game.
Guilherme was fast-tracked into the national set-up after receiving clearance late last year and the coach now looks to have his sights set on Schalke midfielder Roman Neustadter, whose parents left the Soviet Union for Germany when he was a kid. Capped twice in friendlies by Germany and also eligible for Ukraine, Neustadter says he is not ready to give up his German passport but will await “a special decision” from the Russian government, which may grant him a double citizenship and a place in the Russian squad.
Krasnodar striker Ari, who was born in Brazil and married a Russian after joining Spartak Moscow in January 2010, has also applied for a Russian passport and indicated he would be interested in getting involved. Slutsky, however, is only likely to turn to the 30-year-old in case of injuries.
However, the idea of rubbing shoulders with “new compatriots” is not overly popular with some of Russia’s senior players and the national team’s goalkeeping coach, Sergei Ovchinnikov, has openly objected the idea.
One of the most discussed figures prior to the finals has been another “foreigner” in the shape of Aleksandr Kerzhakov, one of only two overseas-based players likely to be going to France.
The country’s all-time leading goalscorer was loaned to the Swiss side Zurich by Zenit, where Portuguese coach Andre Villas-Boas kept him not only out
of the squad but also away from the club’s training ground due to a personal conflict. Eager to make an international comeback, Kerzhakov scored four goals in his first seven games for Zurich in Switzerland before getting injured.
Exciting winger Denis Cheryshev, who has been on loan at Valencia from Real Madrid, would have been handed a place in the 23 if not for his serious injury in March, and his absence means Russia’s attacking hopes will rest with striker Artem Dzyuba – so long as he is fit and motivated – and captain Roman Shirokov in midfield.
The ageing defence has been deemed a worry for years but no alternative has yet been found for its central pivot of CSKA pair Sergei Ignashevich and Vasili Berezutski.
With non-Russians occupying the central-defensive positions in most of the county’s leading club sides, it is not unthinkable that the pair may still be there for the 2018 World Cup.
While a play-off place this summer may be regarded as a must, there is little talk of further progress in the tournament. And any comparison with the Russian team that reached the Euro semi-finals in 2008 does not favour today’s squad.
For the most part, Russia will rely on two club sides for the bulk of their starting line-up in France, with CSKA providing the spine and Zenit the width.
Despite a few worries of late, Igor Akinfeev’s position between the posts is assured and he will have the reassuring sight of club-mates Sergei Ignashevich and Vasili Berezutski in front of him. Although not the quickest pairing, they will dominate in the air and provide a threat in the opposition penalty area at set-pieces.
Zenit wing-backs Igor Smolnikov and Yuri Zhirkov will spend a lot of time in attack, so Igor Denisov will be relied upon to protect the central defenders and break-up counter-attacks.
Alan Dzagoev’s holding responsibilities will not prevent him from pushing forward whenever possible, while Oleg Shatov will drift in from the flank to join him and Roman Shirokov in controlling the game from the centre of the pitch.
Leonid Slutsky’s preferred 4-2-3-1 set-up could change into a 4-1-3-2 if Aleksandr Kokorin joins his Zenit strike partner Artem Dzyuba up front. This change could see Dmitri Kombarov come in at left-back with Zhirkov moving further forward as a more conventional winger.
On the bench, there is experienced Oleg Kuzmin as back-up for Smolnikov, while Dmitri Tarasov or Pavel Mamaev can help to protect the back four. Aleksandr Kerzhakov and Fedor Smolov are good attacking options, while Alexander Samedov is an alternative on the right.
Age 45 (04.05.71)
Once dubbed the “Russian Mourinho” for his coaching talent and charisma, he is a media favourite who is happy to take part in comedy shows and is big fan of the theatre.
Currently combining the national job with that of CSKA coach, he will have to make a choice between the two after the Euro finals.
His brief playing career as a goalkeeper was ended by a spine injury he suffered while trying to get a cat down from a tree. Has a habit of swinging on the bench during games.
By Victor Gusev
Goalkeepers: Igor Akinfeev (CSKA Moscow), Yuri Lodygin (Zenit St Petersburg), Guilherme (Lokomotiv Moscow).
Defenders: Aleksei Berezutski (CSKA Moscow), Vasili Berezutski (CSKA Moscow), Sergei Ignashevich (CSKA Moscow), Dmitri Kombarov (Spartak Moscow), Roman Neustadter (Schalke), Georgi Schennikov (CSKA Moscow), Roman Shishkin (Lokomotiv Moscow), Igor Smolnikov (Zenit St Petersburg).
Midfielders: Igor Denisov (Dynamo Moscow), Dmitri Torbinski (Krasnodar), Aleksandr Golovin (CSKA Moscow), Denis Glushakov (Spartak Moscow), Oleg Ivanov (Terek Grozny), Pavel Mamaev (Krasnodar), Aleksandr Samedov (Lokomotiv Moscow), Oleg Shatov (Zenit St Petersburg), Roman Shirokov (CSKA Moscow).
Forwards: Artem Dzyuba (Zenit St Petersburg), Aleksandr Kokorin (Zenit St Petersburg), Fedor Smolov (Krasnodar).