Russia flagHaving topped a major tournament qualification group for the first time in five attempts, hopes are high for the Euro 2008 semi-finalists this summer.

After replacing Dutch coach Guus Hiddink following the team’s failure to reach the 2010 World Cup finals, Dick Advocaat persevered with the bulk of his predecessor’s line-up. And although they suffered a surprise loss at home to Slovakia early in the campaign, Russia soon regained control of their own destiny in their group by winning away to the Republic of Ireland. A revenge victory in Slovakia and a last-day thumping of Andorra eventually saw them top the group.

After being drawn with Poland, Czech Republic and Greece, anything short of reaching the quarter-finals would be considered a major disappointment for Advocaat’s squad.

Russian fans are dreaming of a repeat of the 2008 run, but to do so Advocaat will be keeping his fingers crossed that first-choice goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev is fully recovered from injury. Although the defence is often criticised as the weak link, Russia conceded only four goals in 10 qualifying games, with Akinfeev the saviour in some crucial moments during the most important matches.

If he fails to make the opening game, the goalkeeper’s jersey will go to Vyacheslav Malafeev, who kept four clean sheets in his four qualifying appearances.

In front of Akinfeev or Malafeev, a lack of competition for the centre-back positions leaves the CSKA Moscow duo of Sergei Ignashevich and Vasili Berezutsky with almost no rivals. Although both are experienced and good in the air, they may, however, have problems if confronted by quick forwards.

There are a number of options in midfield and most of them are Zenit players who Advocaat knows well from his time with the club. While Igor Denisov effectively controls the back, Roman Shirokov is the side’s creative force. The Zenit midfield has recently been enhanced by the introduction of CSKA’s Alan Dzagoev, but the 21-year-old is struggling to be fit in time for the tournament. A broken toe will leave him short of match action until mid May. By that time the league will have finished, leaving Dzagoev with no competitive practice.

Doubts over Arshavin

While some critics doubt Andrei Arshavin’s right to be captain – and even his place in the final 23 – they should remember what happened when he was suspended for the first two games of Euro 2008.

Immediately restored to the team by Hiddink, he inspired the team to get out of their group and into the semi-finals, where they lost to the eventual champions Spain. Arshavin, who turns 31 on the eve of the tournament, played in every qualifying game without scoring but earned a hug and a kiss from Advocaat when he scored in the February friendly against Denmark in Copenhagen.

Pavel Pogrebnyak of Fulham is the only foreign-based player among Russia’s Euro probables. The two other Russian legionnaires, Ajax striker Dmitri Bulykin and Sporting Lisbon midfielder Marat Izmailov, have both looked good for their clubs but failed to impress the man who makes the decision. Advocaat’s usual answer is that he already has stronger players in their positions. He used 23 players in the 10 qualifiers and says that he knew 20 of the 23 names for the final list months before the deadline.

The only disappointment with the draw was that the team will have to play in Poland. Going to Ukraine, where Russian is widely spoken alongside the national language and where Russians do not need visas, would have definitely been preferable.

Group A
08.06.12 Czech Republic (Wroclaw, Pol)
12.06.12 Poland (Warsaw, Pol)
06.06.12 Greece (Warsaw, Pol)

1 Igor Akinfeev (26) 08.04.86 CSKA Moscow
16 Vyacheslav Malafeev (33) 04.03.79 Zenit
13 Anton Shunin (25) 27.01.87 Dynamo Moscow

2 Aleksandr Anyukov (29) 28.09.82 Zenit
12 Aleksei BerezutskY (29) 20.06.82 CSKA Moscow
19 Vladimir Granat (25) 22.05.87 Dynamo Moscow
4 Sergei Ignashevich (32) 14.07.79 CSKA Moscow
21 Kirill Nababkin (25) 08.09.86 CSKA Moscow
3 Roman Sharonov (35) 08.09.76 Rubin Kazan
5 Yuri Zhirkov (28) 20.08.83 Anzhi Makhachkala

7 Igor Denisov (28) 17.05.84 Zenit
17 Alan Dzagoev (21) 17.06.90 CSKA Moscow
22 Denis Glushakov (25) 27.01.87 Lokomotiv Moscow
9 Marat Izmailov (29) 21.09.82 Sporting Lisbon (Por)
15 Dmitri Kombarov (25) 22.01.87 Spartak Moscow
23 Igor Semshov (34) 06.04.78 Dynamo Moscow
6 Roman Shirokov (30) 06.07.81 Zenit
8 Konstantin Zyryanov (34) 05.10.77 Zenit

10 Andrei Arshavin (31) 29.05.81 Arsenal (Eng)
11 Aleksandr Kerzhakov (29) 27.11.82 Zenit
18 Aleksandr Kokorin (21) 19.03.91 Dynamo Moscow
14 Roman Pavlyuchenko (30) 15.12.81 Lokomotiv Moscow
20 Pavel Pogrebnyak (28) 08.11.83 Fulham (Eng)

Dick Advocaat (Hol) (64) 27.09.47

… national coach Dick Advocaat signed a one-year deal to return to his Dutch homeland in July and coach PSV Eindhoven, the club he led to the Eredivisie title in 1997 … defenders Vasili Berezutski and Roman Shishkin were ruled out with a right thigh muscle injury and a stomach complaint respectively …

Group B
03.09.10 Andorra (a) 2-0
07.09.10 Slovakia (h) 0-1
08.10.10 Rep of Ireland (a) 3-2
12.10.10 Macedonia (a) 1-0
26.03.11 Armenia (a) 0-0
04.06.11 Armenia (h) 3-1
02.09.11 Macedonia (h) 1-0
06.09.11 Rep of Ireland (h) 0-0
07.10.11 Slovakia (a) 1-0
11.10.11 Andorra (h) 6-0

P W D L F A Pts
Russia 10 7 2 1 17 4 23
Rep Ireland 10 6 3 1 15 7 21
Armenia 10 5 2 3 22 10 17
Slovakia 10 4 3 3 7 10 15
Macedonia 10 2 2 6 8 14 8
Andorra 10 0 0 10 1 25 0

By Victor Gusev