According to Andrei Arshavin, Russia’s pairing with Slovenia in the draw for the World Cup play-offs was the best possible outcome for Guus Hiddink’s team.
Although honours are even between the two teams, with one victory each and a draw in their three previous meeting, the outcome of the draw offered further proof of the Dutch coach’s good fortune. Any other opponent, such as Bosnia or Ireland, would have posed a bigger threat to Russia’s World Cup qualification chances. A game against Ukraine would have turned into a political battle, so both sides were eventually happy to avoid such an encounter.
Even though Hiddink is seen as a lucky manager in Russia, the decisive Group 4 qualifying game against Germany proved anything but lucky for Russia. One of the team’s best (if not the best) games in the campaign ended in a 1-0 defeat on the artificial grass of the Luzhniki Olympic stadium.
The hosts missed a number of good scoring chances, mostly created by Arshavin, conceded a goal due to a customary defensive error in the first half and blamed the referee for not awarding a penalty, possibly two, in the final moments of the match. Meanwhile the Germans celebrated by drinking Russian beer in the dressing room.
The game in Moscow was viewed by a sell-out crowd of 76,000 in Moscow and by millions of TV spectators all over the country. It was followed by a disappointing 1-1 draw with Azerbaijan in Baku. With automatic qualification out of their reach, Hiddink used an experimental line-up which failed to live up to expectations. Arshavin’s early goal, scored from his new position of centre-forward, was almost the only bright moment of the match. Russian supporters expressed their frustration by fighting with local fans on the stands.
Notwithstanding the poor show in Baku, Hiddink spoke highly of his squad in general, pointing out the team’s progress during the three years under his command. Although they lost Germany, Russia finished a comfortable second in their World Cup qualifying group having conceded no points to closest rivals Finland and Wales.
Furthermore, the positive experiences at Euro 2008 gave Russian players the confidence that they have lacked in recent times. The team moved up to sixth place in FIFA’s world ranking and the names of Andrei Arshavin, Roman Pavluchenko, Yuri Zhirkov, Igor Akinfeev have became known around the world.
Russia’s biggest problem, according to the 63-year-old manager, is that the national championship games are not tough and fast enough to give the players the practice they need before big international encounters. Hiddink also blames the Russian clubs’ selection policy for not paying enough attention to young home grown players, with preference instead given to mediocre legionnaires. As a result the national team does not have enough quality, especially in defence.
With that in mind, Hiddink has travelled around the country trying to unearth young players. He has kept faith in experienced players like Sergei Ignashevich, Konstantin Zyryanov and Sergei Semak, but he has also acknowledge that the team’s future is linked to younger talents such as 19-year-old CSKA playmaker Alan Dzagoev whose attacking partnership with Arshavin looked promising in Baku.
Hiddink’s contract expires after the 2010 World Cup, but there is a strong feeling that he may be offered an extension before the finals, assuming the team make it to South Africa of course. One of the most popular public figures in Russia today, Hiddink enjoys the love of the fans who were generally critical of his predecessors. The Dutchan has been also received the support of the local football authorities on matters such as team accommodation and transportation, which often dismissed as minor issues in the past.
Looking ahead to the forthcoming games against Slovenia, Russian fans recalled the events of eight years ago when their team lost in Lubljana thanks to the last minute penalty awarded by English referee Graham Poll. Although Oleg Romantsev’s squad eventually made it to the 2002 World Cup finals, the game is still quoted by some indignant fans as an example of “a biased attitude” and even “a plot” against Russia.
Artificial turf and Moscow’s cold weather in mid-November will be among Russia’s trump cards in the forthcoming duel. As well as the support of hopefully the same 76,000-strong army of fans in Luzhniki. IN contrast, there will only 12,000 Slovenian fans in Maribor.