MOSCOW Long before Guus Hiddink took over Russia's national team midway through 2006 he was considered a lucky coach after quickly turning mediocre teams into formidable opponents.
The charismatic Dutchman became a national hero in South Korea in 2002 by leading the World Cup co-hosts to the semi-finals, knocking out the much more fancied Italy and Spain along the way.
Four year later he took Australia to their first World Cup in 32 years after they upset former world champions Uruguay in a playoff.
In Germany, the Australians, regarded by many as outsiders, advanced from their first-round group which also included Brazil, Croatia and Japan, before succumbing to eventual champions Italy after conceding a controversial penalty in the last minute.
Hiddink's seemingly magical powers reached a new height last month when he guided unfancied Russia to Euro 2008 following an amazing turn of events in the qualifiers.
The Russians looked well on their way to next year's finals after beating England in Moscow in October but apparently threw away their chance by losing to Israel in Tel Aviv the following month.
Their fortunes, however, were revived just four days later when already-qualified Croatia stunned England 3-2 at Wembley, clearing Russia's path to the finals.
Hiddink himself likened the miraculous escape to playing Russian Roulette.
"Only Russians can put five bullets in a six-chamber pistol, pull the trigger and survive," the 61-year-old coach said after his team squeezed past tiny Andorra 1-0 in their last qualifier to book a place in the finals in Austria and Switzerland.
The players just praised Hiddink's lucky streak.
"Guus's magic made it possible. He is just one lucky guy," was the verdict of Russia captain Andrei Arshavin.
Winger Yuri Zhirkov echoed his team mate: "It was an impossible dream that turned into reality."
Hiddink, who also led his native Netherlands to the World Cup semi-finals in 1998, has always maintained that his success is the result of hard work, good planning and preparation but for some the magic theory is just too tempting to resist.
When Russia made a slow start to their Euro 2008 campaign with home draws against Croatia and Israel, Russian FA chief Vitaly Mutko questioned Hiddink's "magic touch".
"I was told you're a magician. Well, maybe I was misled?" the temperamental Mutko, who was responsible for luring Hiddink to Russia, told the Dutchman after Israel scored a late goal to snatch a 1-1 draw in Moscow in October 2006.
The remark apparently irked Hiddink but he soon found a winning formula, turning an often underachieving Russian side into a redoubtable force.
Hiddink's reputation as lucky was only enhanced during the Euro 2008 draw when Russia avoided being put into a difficult group with the Netherlands, Italy and France and instead were drawn alongside Greece, Spain and Sweden.
Russian media immediately made comparisons with Greece who, under German coach Otto Rehhagel, shocked Europe's more established powers by capturing the title in 2004.
Others pointed to Denmark, who triumphed at Euro 92 after replacing Yugoslavia on the eve of the eight-team tournament.
"Just look at the Danes," wrote the Sovietsky Sport daily.
"They were lying on the beach when they were called to replace Yugoslavia at the last minute. They sneaked through the back door and came away with the trophy.
"Russia were the last team to qualify for the 2008 finals, so logically we should have a good chance to go all the way."
Most experts, however, remained cautious, suggesting the Russians would do well just to survive the first round.
That is something they have failed to achieve in a major tournament since 1988 when, as the Soviet Union, they reached the final of the European Championship in Germany.
"The results of the draw just proved that Hiddink is an extremely lucky coach," said former Russia skipper Igor Shalimov.
"I'm cautiously optimistic and would even dare to suggest that with Hiddink we have a good chance to qualify from our group for the first time in 20 years," he added.
Still, one newspaper has boldly predicted Russia's victory next June. "Only seven months left before we can start celebrating," the daily Sport-Express wrote in its editorial. "The countdown has already begun!"
(Editing by Clare Fallon)
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