Russia head to this summer’s European Championship looking to build off their superb performance on home soil in the 2018 World Cup.
Backed by a voracious home crowd, Stanislav Cherchesov’s side defied all expectations at the last World Cup, finishing second only to Uruguay in Group A, before beating Spain on penalties in the round-of-16 to set up a quarter-final clash with Croatia, who had to resort to spot-kicks to finally see off the hosts.
That was the first time Russia had made it beyond the group stages of a World Cup since 1986, while it was the first time in any major tournament since Euro 2008, when they reached the semi-finals.
As such, expectations have been raised among supporters after a heroic showing three years ago, despite being drawn in a tough group alongside Belgium, Denmark and Finland. So, can the players live up to the billing on the pitch?
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The best players Russia will bring to Euro 2020
Goalkeeper: Anton Shunin
Due to Igor Akinfeev holding down the No.1 jersey for 111 caps across 14 years, Russia enter these Euros with a shortage of goalkeepers at international level. Right now, Anton Shunin looks like their best option.
The 34-year-old started all three of the recent World Cup qualifiers against Malta, Slovenia and Slovakia to take his international caps to double digits.
Shunin has spent his entire career with Dynamo Moscow and although major honours have eluded him, the veteran stopper does have Champions League and Europa League experience under his belt, while keeping over 100 clean sheets for the club.
This season, Shunin (who is blessed with brilliant reflexes, compensating for his lack of ability with the ball at his feet) has been one of the busier goalkeepers in the Russian Premier League as Dynamo chased a Champions League spot.
Defender: Mario Fernandes
Although not the most glamorous of players, especially when considering some of the attacking full-backs that will be on show this summer, Mario Fernandes is as steady as they come at right-back for CSKA Moscow and Russia.
The Brazilian-born defender made more interceptions (51) than any other CSKA player during the season 2020/21, using his reading of the game to step in and steal the ball at the perfect moment. Fernandes’ aggressiveness in the tackle also makes him an extremely undesirable opponent in one-on-one battles with wingers.
Fernandes, who recently signed a new deal with CSKA, ranked second among Russian players for ball recoveries (34) and aerial duels won (21) at the 2018 World Cup, while he was third for tackles (11), interceptions (eight) and clearances (19). Expect him to play the same level of importance at the Euros.
Midfielder: Aleksandr Golovin
Aleksandr Golovin notched a goal and two assists at the 2018 World Cup, becoming one of the stars of the show for the hosts. Since then, he’s gone from strength to strength.
The 24-year-old completed a move to Monaco off the back of that 2018 showing for an undisclosed fee, one that the French club confirmed was a record transfer. Though he was a little slow starting off, Golovin has become one of Monaco’s most important players, particularly this season, where he’s registered five goals and nine assists in 20 Ligue 1 appearances, keeping Les Monegasques firmly in the title race right down to the final day.
A demon dribbler and precision passer, Golovin glides through the midfield, picking up pockets of space to take the ball and wreak havoc on the opposition defence. In a Russian side relatively bereft of attacking thrust and creativity, aside from Valencia’s Denis Cheryshev and Aleksi Miranchuk of Atalanta, getting Golovin on the ball in dangerous areas is going to define their chances this summer.
Forward: Artem Dzyuba
With goals against Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Spain, Artem Dzyuba wrote his name into Russian football folklore at the 2018 World Cup and has remained an extremely important player for them since, scoring another 13 goals across Nations League, European Championship qualifying and World Cup qualifying combined. The audible roar from the Russian crowd every time Dzyuba gets the ball is palpable.
Dzyuba has also remained extremely prolific at club level with Zenit St Petersburg and although he’s not the most mobile, his ability to hold up possession, bring others into play and finishing chances in and around the box with unerring accuracy will make him a handful for any opposing centre-back. Standing at 6ft 6in tall, the 32-year-old is also a monster in the air, so getting crosses into the box could be a very effective ploy for Russia, who will also look to make the most of set-pieces.
Though the likes of Golovin, Dzyuba and Fernandes will return from the heroic 2018 World Cup side, there is still plenty of change afoot from Russia in comparison to the team that lost to Croatia in the quarter-finals. As mentioned, Akinfeev has called time on his international career to focus on prolonging his club career, as has Aleksandr Samedov. Meanwhile, centre-back Sergei Ignashevich retired after the 2018 World Cup. Ilya Kutepov has been capped just once since 2018 and is likely to miss out.
The manager: Stanislav Cherchesov
Following their winless group-stage exit at Euro 2016, Russia took the decision to dispense with Leonid Slutsky, replacing him with Cherchesov, who has been a popular choice so far thanks to that 2018 World Cup showing.
That said, recent results have left the 57-year-old under a bit of pressure, with Russia only managing second-place finishes in both of their Nations League campaigns since the World Cup, while they recently suffered a humiliating 5-0 defeat to Serbia and a 0-0 draw with minnows Moldova.
So, there’s plenty of work to do for Cherchesov but with two of their three group stage matches hosted in Saint Petersburg, perhaps those home comforts can inspire more tournament heroics this summer.
“Why look at a passport?” – Cherchesov defends Zhirkov inclusion
One of the more surprising names on Russia’s Euro 2020 squad list was one of the most familiar to English fans: former Chelsea full-back Yuri Zhirkov, who is at the ripe old age of 37.
Zhirkov played just 15 league games for Zenit last season and, as such, there are those who have criticised Cherchesov for including the veteran in his squad.
But the Russia boss believes Zhirkov can still be a defining player for his side, and there’s no doubting the left-back will offer a mountain of experience for his teammates this summer.
“What’s the point of looking at a passport?” said Cherchesov. “I didn’t look at my own passport and played with the national team until I was 40 so why should I look at someone else’s passport? If a player brings a result today, he cannot be artificially stopped. Everything should happen naturally.”
Though Cherchesov has experimented with a back-five, 4-2-3-1 has been his formation of choice over the past year. Dzyuba will lead the line, but his hold-up play will be vital in getting the likes of Golovin and Miranchuk involved, with the midfield pair expected to both make supporting runs beyond their striker and provide the final pass for him to add to his considerable goal tally.
Cheryshev will provide a goal threat from the flanks, just as he did three years ago at the World Cup, while Fernandes and ex-Chelsea veteran Yuri Zhirkov should complete a functional but solid Russian backline that will be out to frustrate the opposition.
As mentioned, set pieces will be extremely important to Cherchesov’s side, while the technical ability of his midfielders should give them plenty of possession, even against some of the heavyweights in this summer’s tournament.
The form guide
Euro 2020 qualifying: WLWWWWWWWL
Russia qualified for Euro 2020 in style, winning eight of their 10 games. Only Belgium, who beat Russia twice, finished above them, with Cherchesov’s taking 24 points, scoring 33 goals and only conceding eight. Dzyuba was Group I’s top scorer with nine goals.
Recent fixtures: WDLWWLLDDD
As mentioned, Cherchesov has come in for criticism after his side suffered a six-game winless streak to see out 2020. On a lighter note, the Russians come into the Euros off the of a 1-0 win over Bulgaria and a 1-1 draw with Poland.
Russia’s Euro 2020 odds
Alongside the likes of Poland and Austria, Russia are priced at 80/1 with Sky Bet to win the Euros and can be firmly categorised as a dark horse and potentially troublesome, though nowhere near the main contenders. With Belgium and Denmark accompanying them in Group B, it’s little surprise to see odds as long as 5/1 being offered to finish top.
However, Russia are 1/2 on to qualify from Group B, perhaps doing so as one of the four best third-place teams, while Dzyuba represents their best chance of producing a Golden Boot winner at 50/1, alongside the likes of Andre Silva, Bruno Fernandes and Ilkay Gundogan.
(Odds in this article are correct at the time of writing. 18+ only, BeGambleAware.org)