MOSCOW, (Reuters) - Russia travel to France with a line-up that has few world names but plenty of ambition and head coach Leonid Slutskiy sees qualifying from the group stage as the bare minimum to expect.
Though they have made it to the European Championship finals on four previous occasions, the only time Russia made it beyond the groups was in 2008 when, under Guus Hiddink, they reached the semi-finals where they lost to Spain.
Though a semi-final repeat might be beyond them, Russian football chief Vitaly Mutko expects them to emerge from a Group B that includes England, Wales and Slovakia.
Slutskiy largely benefits from a clean bill of health — with the exception of Denis Cheryshev who has been ruled out of the tournament due to injury — as he prepares his squad for their opening game against England on June 11 in Marseille.
In their last encounter, Russia beat Steve McLaren’s side 2-1 on an emotionally charged night in 2007 to help them qualify for Euro 2008 at England’s expense.
Slutskiy will not be letting that fond memory cloud his judgement or affect his preparations for the Marseille clash.
“England have a new generation of good footballers. The team won all 10 of the matches in the group stage. This shows how good they are,” Slutskiy said in an interview with the Sport Express newspaper.
Later Russia will face Slovakia in Lille, while five days later they take on Wales in Toulouse.
Two draws against the Slovaks in 2004 and 2005 stopped Russia from qualifying for the World Cup. “Historically, we have a difficult relationship with Slovakia,” the 45-year-old head coach said. “Wales will also be tough, so we definitely won’t be the favourites.”
Russia’s minimum task is to try to qualify from the group stages. “If we don’t make the knockout stages, this will be failure,” Vitaly Mutko, the Sports Minister and national football union president, said in an interview with Match TV.
“I think that our team has the potential to have a good tournament,” he added.
Russia’s team has undergone a few changes since the last Euros in Poland and Ukraine four years ago, when the Russians under Dick Advocaat crashed out at the group stages.
Forward Artem Dzyuba failed to make the squad on that occasion but the 27-year-old, who plays for Zenit St. Petersburg, made sure of his Euro finals place in France with a record eight goals in the qualifiers.
He will team up with Fedor Smolov, another prolific goal scorer this season, to make up Russia’s strike force.
“I think we will be alright in the group and I am sure that we will be able to get out of the group,” Smolov told FIFA in an interview.
Russia’s weak spot is a lack of pace in the centre of defence, with Sergei Ignashevich, who turns 37 during the summer and the 33-year-old Vasili Berezutski the first-choice pairing.
The Euros are likely to be their last tournament at international level, with Russia looking to young players ahead of the 2018 World Cup, which they will host.
Editing by Richard Balmforth