A year out from the World Cup and the hosts have a lot of work to do if they are going to be competitive on home soil
It’s fair to say Russian fans might feel entitled to more than a group stage exit at the World Cup which they are hosting next summer. As a trial run their Confederations Cup campaign has not been a good sign.
Stanislav Cherchesov’s side came into this tournament in their lowest-ever Fifa World Ranking slot at 63. They were drawn alongside European champions Portugal and the best North America has to offer in Mexico. It was always going to be a stretch to qualify, particularly with three points on offer for every team against New Zealand. How Russia fared against the other two teams who had taken a point off each other on matchday one was all that was going to matter.
Unfortunately for the hosts they were edged out each time. Cristiano Ronaldo’s header on Wednesday was enough to see Portugal past Russia at Spartak Moscow’s brand new stadium and Mexico had too much for them here in Kazan. Out they go.
They weren’t hard done by, weren’t robbed; simply they are not yet at the standard required to punch their weight at a major tournament. A lack of competitive action admittedly does not help. As hosts they automatically qualify for the World Cup next summer and so they are going in blind to an extent. Games here – whatever the result – are welcome.
Then there’s the rejuvenation issue. Sixteen of their 23-man squad came into this tournament on or under the 20-cap mark and their top scorer is a relative newcomer at this level – Fedor Smolov, who has eight in 23.
Veterans Igor Akinfeev and Yuri Zhirkov survive from the Euro 2008 campaign but no longer are dashing young things. Akinfeev was at fault for the second goal here – Hirving Lozano’s header – and could have been red-carded for the same incident.
Zhirkov was sent off shortly after for an elbow on Miguel Layun. The sight of the ex-Chelsea full-back and his greying beard exiting the Kazan Arena was certainly a pertinent one.
More renewal and a better unit is needed for the World Cup next year. Cherchesov can only work with what he’s got of course, but Russia did not carve out a collective identity at these games. They changed formations, altered their line-ups and didn’t impress for long spells.
Denis Glushakov is a capable ball-carrier but not really on the top level. It is to the Spartak Moscow man that Russia look to most often. However, it is clear that the manager must now build around Aleksandr Golovin.
These three matches have provided his international breakout. The CSKA Moscow man has just turned 21 but has already turned plenty of heads in Europe. Arsenal are said to be interested, and it’s no surprise. He showed character and maturity beyond his years throughout the competition and has the footwork and vision to make a real impact.
Russia will probably feel they could have given more in their two defeats to Portugal and Mexico but the authorities and fans can be proud of what has been a successful event so far. Stadiums have been relatively full and there is an ease of operation around the venues. Thousands of smiling volunteers are only too happy to help.
And far from gangs of MMA fighters lying in wait for opposition fans in dark alleys, the Russian supporters have done plenty to overturn any preconceived notion travellers might have had about coming here. Russian football supporters get plenty of negative press but here they showed that characterisations in the western press are moronic.
They are couples, friends, parents and children, just like you’d find anywhere else on the continent. It’s a shame the home support has no more matches to look forward to.
Let’s hope for them that Cherchesov and his men get their act together for the main event next summer.