MOSCOW, June 5 (Reuters) - Russia are approaching Euro 2012 in a confident mood, eager to at least match their performance from four years ago when they reached the semi-finals before losing to eventual champions Spain.
Despite a sluggish start to the qualifiers which included a laboured 2-0 win over tiny Andorra and a 1-0 home defeat to Slovakia, the Russians comfortably sealed their place in this year’s finals by finishing top of qualifying Group B.
Russia rarely produced the attacking flair that made them look so attractive in Austria and Switzerland in 2008 but they were defensively sound, conceding only four goals in their 10 matches.
Dick Advocaat, who succeeded his Dutch compatriot Guus Hiddink as Russia coach following the country’s failure to qualify for the 2010 World Cup, has retained virtually the same squad from the previous campaign.
Advocaat has been heavily criticised by local media for failing to blood new players into an ageing team that many experts feel has already reached its peak.
Key players, such as Russia captain Andrei Arshavin, striker Roman Pavlyuchenko and winger Yuri Zhirkov, who shone at Euro 2008, have struggled for form this season.
Those three plus Diniyar Bilyaletdinov have quit their respective English Premier League clubs over the last few months and returned home in order to revive their careers.
Arsenal forward Arshavin, in particular, had an erratic last 12 months in London before rejoining his former club Zenit St Petersburg on a three-month loan in February.
Arshavin’s inability to adapt to the rigours of the English game is seen as the biggest drawback to Russia’s chances in the 16-team tournament, co-hosted by Poland and Ukraine.
One bright spot for Russia is the form of Pavel Pogrebnyak, who defied the trend by moving to England, joining Fulham from Bundesliga side VfB Stuttgart in the January transfer window.
The powerful striker, who missed Euro 2008 with a knee injury, scored in his first three league games for his new team, including a hat-trick against Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Nevertheless, Russian soccer chief Sergei Fursenko has boldly predicted that his team could reach the final in Kiev.
“I think we’re very capable of doing even better than what we achieved four years ago,” Fursenko, who also claimed his country would win the 2018 World Cup, told reporters after the Russians were drawn in Group A along with co-hosts Poland, 2004 European champions Greece and the Czech Republic.
At Euro 2008, Hiddink-led Russia, regarded as rank outsiders, upset the favourites to reach the last four, their best showing at a major championship in 20 years.
“In 2008, not many people counted on our team, thus we were able to surprise a lot of the so-called experts,” wrote former international Yevgeny Lovchev, now a newspaper columnist for sports daily Soviet Sport.
“This time, it will be a much harder task, not only because other teams are not going to take Russia lightly, but also because Advocaat has relied basically on the very same players as his predecessor.”
Arshavin, however, has remained optimistic.
“I know a lot of fans back home have written us off. Let them say what they want. Personally, I like to prove people wrong,” the 31-year-old was quoted as saying by Russian media.
”I think a big plus for us is that we have a seasoned team and know what to expect in a tournament like Euro 2012, where the main task is always trying to advance past the first round.
“Once you reach the quarter-finals anything is possible - we did it four years ago.”
As part of the Soviet Union, Russia had a huge impact on this tournament, winning the first one in 1960 and losing the finals in 1964, 1972 and 1988. A first final appearance as Russia looks doubtful, unless the old guard can muster up their old undoubted flair. (Editing by Tim Collings/Dave Thompson)