Soul-searching following Russia’s miserable performance at the 2016 Euro led to one inescapable conclusion: the squad has a long way to go to avoid humiliation on home turf at the 2018 World Cup.
Russia crashed out of Euro 2016 without a win, its short run at the tournament tarnished by hooliganism among its fans and scandals in its dressing room.
Former manager Leonid Slutsky, who resigned after the Euro debacle, confessed to Russian media that he had confronted his players with the state of affairs, telling them bluntly: “We are shit.”
Since then Russian Football Union chief Vitaly Mutko, who also serves as a deputy prime minister, has vowed to rebuild the team from scratch.
The country appointed ex-Legia Warsaw boss Stanislav Cherchesov in August, handing him the daunting task of preparing the team for the World Cup.
His major test before that will be the Confederations Cup in June and July next year, Russia’s dry run for the World Cup which includes teams from Germany, Portugal and Mexico among others.
Russian Cherchesov, 53, selected rookie-filled rosters for his first friendlies as head coach, calling up 22-year-old Roman Zobnin, as well as 23-year-old Ilya Kutepov of Spartak Moscow.
Despite efforts to rejuvenate his squad, Cherchesov has a limited pool from which to select his players – a problem exacerbated by structural problems in Russian football.
Football pundit Igor Rabiner at Sports Express newspaper told AFP that the current generation of Russian players is “very poor” in terms of talent, a situation made worse by Russian Premier League rules that stifle competition – including a limit of six foreign players on the pitch at one time.
“Because of the foreign-player limit, (Russian) players don’t face competition for a spot in their club’s line-up,” Rabiner said, adding that the national squad was not accustomed to pushing its limits.
‘No weak opponents’
Russia has tried by fill the gaps on its national squad by naturalising players with Russian roots or veterans of its domestic league.
They include twice-capped Germany international Roman Neustadter – who was born in Ukraine during the Soviet era – received a Russian passport in May, and Brazilian-born goalkeeper Guilherme of Lokomotiv Moscow.
But fresh blood has done little to reinvigorate the team.
Russia has had two wins, two losses and one draw in the five friendlies played under Cherchesov.
The team suffered a demoralising 2-1 loss this month to 2022 World Cup hosts Qatar, 91st in FIFA rankings, in the capital Doha.
Striker Alexander Kokorin – who was punished by his club Zenit Saint Peterburg for a champagne-fuelled party after Russia’s exit from the Euro – missed a penalty that could have earned his side a draw in the 86th minute.
“The match against Qatar showed that there are no weak opponents for the Russian team in its current state,” Rabiner said.
Mutko has appealed to Russian fans to be patient and cut Cherchesov some slack.
“Forming a new squad is a long process and the coach needs time to come up with a competitive line-up,” Mutko told TASS news agency after the Qatar defeat.
The Russian squad bounced back a few days later with a 1-0 win against Romania with a stoppage time goal by Magomed Ozdoev of Rubin Kazan.
Cherchesov hopes the teams can learn from their mistakes.
“Like the entire country I was furious after the defeat in Doha,” he told Russian TV. “But maybe this loss will help us to pave the way to a better future. We needed to watch and test all the players.”