MOSCOW, Russian Federation, Nov 30 – Appointed as Russia’s new coach right after their Euro 2016 disaster, Stanislav Cherchesov knew he was facing an uphill task. Now he has seven months to turn next year’s World Cup hosts into viable opponents.
Russia will take the top slot in the first pot of teams at the finals draw on Friday as hosts, but at 65th in the world they are the lowest ranked of the 32 nations taking part in next year’s tournament.
Since the arrival of the moustachioed strategist in August last year, the team continues to disappoint with rare victories dotted between defeats.
“Landing in an easy group at the World Cup is an illusion,” Cherchesov said in an interview published by Russia’s Football Union.
Out of 17 matches under his watch, Russia have won six and lost just as many, with some embarrassing defeats such as a 2-1 loss against Qatar in November 2016.
The former international goalkeeper has tried to diversify the team’s tactics. But forcing older players to retire – a decision not welcomed by all fans – and blooding less experienced youngsters has failed to do the job.
Even drafting in more foreign players has not improved the situation. Lokomotiv Moscow’s Brazilian keeper Guilherme Marinato debuted for his adopted homeland in 2016 after receiving Russian citizenship.
He was followed by two German players of Russian origin, Roman Neustadter and Konstantin Rausch, as well as CSKA’s Brazilian midfielder Mario Fernandes, with the additions planned with 2018 in mind.
– Young hopefuls –
Yet for outside observers, Russia remain an improving team. During Euro 2016 in France, six of Russia’s best players were over 30 and the team lacked any decent tactics or style.
By integrating younger players with potential that his predecessor ignored, Cherchesov revitalised a group that can finally play as a team.
During matches against Belgium and Spain this year, both of which ended in 3-3 draws, the Russians were able to recover from trailing by two goals.
“I saw no fear in the eyes of the Russian players,” former CSKA Moscow coach Valery Gazzaev said of the games, adding that Russia “learned more from two matches against Argentina (a 1-0 loss) and Spain than from all previous friendly matches”.
Cherchesov sees another reason for satisfaction.
“When we talk about the players, we are still talking about football,” he explained, a few weeks after Zenit player Alexander Kokorin rejoined the national team.
Kokorin, 26, was suspended in July 2016 after a video emerged from a Monte Carlo nightclub where he and team-mate Pavel Mamaev allegedly spent $296,000 on champagne following Russia’s humiliating Euro 2016 performance.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov called it “a shameless display of conceit”. But 18 months later, Kokorin is enjoying his best season to date.
– Aiming for the quarter-finals –
The Russian team will kick off at the World Cup with some certainties. Cherchesov has already boasted about his defence, which will include Viktor Vasin (CSKA Moscow), Fedor Kudryashov (Rubin Kazan) and Georgiy Dzhikiya (Spartak Moscow).
Veteran goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, capped 113 times by Russia, will play alongside his CSKA Moscow team-mate Alan Dzagoev and Spartak Moscow midfielder Denis Glushakov.
The arrival of the Miranchuk brothers, who both play for Lokomotiv Moscow, breathed new life into the team.
Russia are waiting to see their best strikers Fedor Smolov (Krasnodar) and Kokorin finally be reunited on the pitch. Until now, Cherchesov has favoured the Krasnodar attacker.
To test themselves, Russia will play another friendly against Brazil in March. They will also need to reconcile with their loyal, but disappointed supporters. In July 2016, 500,000 Russians signed an online petition to dissolve the national team.
Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko has set a goal of reaching the quarter-finals at next year’s tournament.
That would already be an achievement, with Russia yet to advance beyond the first round in three World Cup appearances — in 1994, 2002 and 2014 — since the fall of the USSR.