The media reaction to the 1st December 2017 Kremlin Palace draw for the 2018 FIFA World Cup finals was dominated by the apparently benign group allocation handed out to England; however, this curious focus has only served to obscure the event’s Really Big Story – the probable elimination of the hosts less than two weeks into the competition.
Drawn in Group A, Russia will kick off the tournament with a relatively easy game against the notoriously inconsistent Saudi Arabians (14/06/2018), but their other pool opponents – Egypt and Uruguay, in that order – seem almost tailor-made to spoil the Russian party. Both these latter sides are respectively spearheaded by world-class strikers with pace to burn – Mohamed Salah and Luis Suárez – and have the personnel to soak up opposition pressure before launching decisive counterattacks; the contrast with a Russian national team which is characterised by overly-ponderous, predictable passing patterns and sluggish midfield runners could scarcely be sharper.
In normal circumstances, this sub-optimal prognosis would be par for the course: since its inception in 1992, the Russian national football team has only got into the knockout stages of a major tournament on a single occasion, when a stylish side inspired by the Arsenal and Zenit Saint Petersburg icon Andrey Arshavin finished a highly-creditable fourth at Euro 2008.
However, these are not normal circumstances: with Russia hosting the FIFA World Cup for the first time, another average group-stage exit would represent nothing short of a soft power catastrophe. Something therefore needs to change – but what? After some contemplation, we at Mediolana believe we have the makings of a master plan to spare Russian blushes at next year’s global party sans pareil:
- Press Fast Forward. Russia seem to flourish when they resist the temptation of taking the game to the other team and instead intermix snappy passing on the break with sitting moderately deep when not in possession. Crucially, their players have the technique to manoeuvre the ball in tight areas, so this attribute should be taken advantage of.
- Find Other Creative Outlets. Russia’s finals performances at recent tournaments have been crippled by the non-availability of Alan Dzagoev, a joint-top scorer at Euro 2012 who has developed a knack of running into injury problems at precisely the most inconvenient moments. While the presence of Dzagoev will still be critical to Russian success in 2018, drastic over-reliance on a single player is simply inexcusable given the size of Russia’s professional football base.
- Promote Youth. Russia presently have a clutch of midfielders and strikers – all of whom have excellent technical ability – populating their U21 squad. These players are exactly what is needed to enable the team to make the transition from lumbering liabilities to exponents of sultry and effective football. In particular, Fyodor Chalov and Timur Zhamaletdinov (CSKA Moscow), Zelimkhan Bakayev (Spartak-2 Moscow), Ayaz Guliyev (Anzhi Makhachkala), Rifat Zhemaletdinov (Rubin Kazan) and Ivan Oblyakov (FC Ufa) are all genuinely gifted individuals who should be given a chance to propel their country’s senior soccer collective to new heights.