Euro 2016 Fantasy Preview: Russia
Russia face a tough test to get through the group stage at Euro 2016, with England, Wales and Slovakia awaiting in their section of the draw.
Leonid Slutsky’s 23-man squad is made up almost entirely of Russia-based players, apart from the intriguing inclusion of Schalke defender Roman Neustädter, who was born in the Soviet Union, in what is now Ukraine, and has previously twice been capped in friendlies by Germany.
Neustädter is able to play for Russia after completing the relevant paperwork, with Brazil-born reserve goalkeeper Guilherme in a similar situation after being granted Russian citizenship.
Russia are without their star player, Alan Dzagoev, after an ankle injury ruled him out of the tournament, but Slutsky can call upon eight players who featured for his title-winning CSKA Moscow side this season, adding coherence to what will be a well-organised outfit.
But what should Euro 2016 fantasy football players be looking out for from Russia this summer?
Likely tactics and formation
Russia have been freed of the shackles placed on them by previous coach Fabio Capello.
He was expected to develop the team’s chances ahead of their home World Cup in 2018, but saw his well-paid reign end prematurely after a series of stodgy performances put their Euro 2016 qualification in doubt, with Slutsky coming in as his replacement and leading Russia to the finals.
Slutsky is likely to set Russia up in a loose 4-2-3-1 formation – a shape set to be extremely common among nations participating in France this year – while captain Roman Shirokov could play in the hole, a role that had been earmarked for Dzagoev.
Russia have energy in midfield and attack, but their defence is ageing and that may force them to sit deep to avoid being caught out by pacy attackers, with a lot of pressure on star striker Artyom Dzyuba to provide the team’s goals.
Dzyuba, who is particularly strong in the air, is a certainty to lead the line for Russia, with a clutch of decent options to line up in the three supporting roles behind him.
Shirokov and Oleg Shatov are highly likely to be in the team after injured wingers Yuri Zhirkov and midfielder Denis Cheryshev were ruled out, while Russia’s all-time leading scorer Aleksandr Kerzhakov was also left out of the 23-man squad entirely after falling out of favour.
Slutsky will likely keep faith with most of the players who starred in qualification, where Russia booked their place in the finals thanks to a second-placed finish in Group G behind Austria.
Igor Akinfeev is the first of a handful of CSKA Moscow players likely to be in Slutsky’s team for Russia’s first match at Euro 2016, which sees them take on England in Marseille on June 11.
Akinfeev was once regarded as one of the hottest young goalkeepers in world football, but he has thus far opted not to move outside of Russia, playing his whole career to date at CSKA.
Slutsky’s other goalkeeping options are Guilherme, who has only a single cap for Russia so far, with Yuri Lodygin of Zenit St Petersburg the number two to Akinfeev.
Russia will have one of the most experienced back lines at the Euros, with Sergei Ignashevich and Vasili Berezutski having a combined age of 69 and over 200 caps between them. Berezutski is currently being preferred to his identical twin brother Aleksey in defence.
Zenit’s Igor Smolnikov is expected to pip Roman Shishkin for the right-back spot, with Georgi Schennikov the first choice left-back in Slutsky’s strongest team, assuming everyone is fit.
Russia’s midfield is far from set in stone, with Dzagoev’s absence leaving a void Slutsky may well struggle to fill. Igor Denisov is likely to be one of the deep-lying midfielders and his most likely partner is the talented CSKA youngster Aleksandr Golovin.
Shirokov will be the central of the three attacking midfielders in Slutsky’s 4-2-3-1, although the 34-year-old is given the freedom to switch positions with the wider players, Shatov and Aleksandr Kokorin, who has 11 goals from 37 appearances for Russia and can also play up front.
Dzyuba scored eight goals in qualifying and will be Russia’s biggest goal threat at the finals. Although he only opened his international account in 2014, Dzyuba now has a highly respectable record of eight strikes in 16 appearances for his country due to his recent goal glut.
The 27-year-old, another of the Zenit contingent in the squad, hit 23 goals this season and comes into the tournament in fine form after scoring seven goals in his last 13 games of the campaign.
Although he may start on the wing for Russia, Kokorin will get into the box when they attack.
Fedor Smolov is unlikely to challenge Dzyuba for a starting berth but he could be a threat as a substitute. The Krasnodar hotshot struck 20 goals to be the top scorer in Russia’s highest league this season, including ending the campaign with 13 goals in just eight matches.
Box-to-box midfielder Denis Glushakov could get the nod in midfield ahead of teenager Golovin, but if not he can provide a steadying influence from the bench, while Torbinski will hope to make the most of his late call-up as a replacement for Dzagoev by making a positive impact.
Aleksey Berezutski is the main defensive cover included in the Russia squad for Euro 2016.
Dzagoev would have been Russia’s most likely set-piece taker had he been fit, but in his absence the responsibility is expected to be passed on to Kokorin, who will aim for the height and power of Dzyuba from corners and free-kicks.
Penalties could go to Dzyuba, although he has not taken a spot-kick at club level since 2014, while Kokorin has scored four and missed two of his six career penalties.
The 19-year-old Golovin might also get the chance to show off his set-piece skills at the Euros.