Russia coach Guus Hiddink has thrown down a challenge to his players as they prepare to face highly-fancied Spain in Tuesday’s Group D opener.
The 61-year-old Dutchman is so excited by the potential of his young Russia side that he wants to take the game to group favourites Spain.
Ahead of the contest, Hiddink admits he is “curious” to see whether Russia can rise to the challenge.
“I want them to go out and play good football, I want them to make Spain’s life very complicated,” he said. “I don’t want the frightened and timid performances of some previous tournaments.”
“Very few of my players have top-level tournament experience but they’ve reacted to the hard work I’ve set them. Our intention is to break the pattern so far where the favourites have always won.”
With captain Andrei Arshavin suspended for the first two games and Pavel Pogrebnyak ruled out of the finals by injury, much now depends on striker Roman Pavlyuchenko.
“I’ve known about Arshavin for many months and Pogrebnyak in recent days,” said Hiddink.
“That’s a setback. I can’t complain and start crying, and anyway I have confidence that the rest of the team can cover for those two losses.”
Of and criticised Pavlyuchenko, who received a late call-up to the squad, Hiddink said: “He wasn’t in great shape when he joined us but he’s made tremendous progress.”
Spain, the perennial underachievers of international football, begin yet another campaign, desperate to do justice to their individual talents.
Coach Luis Aragones looked and sounded confident as he anticipated going head-to-head with an old foe. The two men have often met at club level and the Spaniard succeeded Hiddink at Valencia.
“Dutch coaches always demand good football but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he plans a tactic to try and shut down Xavi [Hernández] in our midfield,” the 69-year-old said. “But this Russia team is very quick on the counterattack so that’s why I’ve emphasised so strongly to my defenders that they must regroup quickly and intelligently when we lose the ball.”
Spain have minor concerns over David Villa (thigh), Sergio Garcia and Andres Iniesta (food poisoning), although all are expected to be fit for selection.
Aragones also revealed that he has one or two surprises planned for his opposite number – “just in case they do manage to man-mark Xavi” – but he also stressed his belief in the Barcelona midfielder’s ability to deal with anything that comes his way.
“Xavi is in the top three players in the world at what he does,” argued Spain’s trainer.
“He’s been phenomenal for me and I have total confidence in him. Xavi can change the tempo and the result of a game all on his own.”
Aragones admits he already knows his starting eleven but chided journalists who tried to guess it.
“Yes, Villa will take the penalties,” he said. “But only if he’s picked in the first place! It has been a long wait to start the tournament but we are totally ready and feel no fear.”
One player not expected to start is Arsenal’s Cesc Fabregas.
“You can’t dispute his quality but the problem is that he has gone 30 days without a game,” said Aragones.