Just over three years ago, Russia emerged as one of the dark horses of the 2008 European Championships. With lavish praise heaped on the experienced, but no less impressive, efforts of manager Guus Hiddink, and heavy price tags slapped on the heads of the London bound Roman Pavlyuchenko and Andrei Arshavin, the Russian national team looked like cementing a place on the plush chairs at the international top table.
Unfortunately things did not quite work out. They failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup, Hiddink departed and Pavlyuchenko and Arshavin didn't quite have the impact that their 2008 form had suggested. And now, six games into the qualification stage of for the next European Championships in 2012, Russia sits level with the Republic of Ireland and Slovakia at a crucial stage in the development of the national team and the reign of Dick Advocaat.
The fixtures against Macedonia and the Republic of Ireland over the next few days will offer a clearer indication of Russia's chances of qualifying for the tournament, with anything less being seen as a failure by the RFU (Russian FA) and the Russian fans. But a number of supporters and members of the press have already offered significant criticisms of Advocaat's reign - many pointing to his failure to successfully integrate a new generation of players into the squad. However, Advocaat, to the frustration of many, has sidestepped the issue and complained about the lack of young talent coming through the ranks: "in the team now are the same players as when Hiddink [was the manager], the team has not changed. I do not see the approach of the younger generation, and it bothers me."
Whilst it seems positive that Advocaat has recognised the need for a new generation of young players to step up and fill the void that the ageing schemers - such as Zenit stalwart Konstantin Zyryanov - will soon leave, he continues to ignore the valuable youngsters that Russia has at her disposal. Aside from CSKA's talented midfielder Alan Dzagoev, the Dutch manager continually appears to overlook the likes of Spartak's Emin Makhmudov and CSKA's Georgi Schennikov. Admittedly, these players may not merit a place ahead of Roman Shirokov and Yuri Zhrikov but offering them an experience of life in the senior side may spur on their development and ease the transition when senior players retire. But, then again, that would go against Advocaat's suggestion that the quality of youngsters is insufficient.
So, the Russian national team goes into two crucial qualifying games against decent opposition with the manager already offering ready made excuses as to why the team may fail in the long term. The Russian press seems to have laid off Advocaat in the week approaching these two matches, mainly due to the furore surrounding the injury of CSKA goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev at the hands of Spartak's Welliton in the Moscow derby last weekend. The media went into overdrive, with SovSport even running a live blog of quotes from current players, former players, commentators, foreign journalists and fan polls, allowing Advocaat to shy away from the spotlight - as illustrated with a rather blunt press conference in the week.
The next time you hear from me Advocaat and the Russian side may have swept all before them and charged to the top of the group but should they not the vultures will start circling around the Dutchman's reign. It is likely that Russia will overcome - at least - Macedonia and - possibly - the Republic of Ireland but, as a Russian journalist and friend of mine seems to think, Advocaat's relationship with current head of the RFU, Sergei Fursenko (the president of Zenit when Advocaat was there) may see him through adversity, anyway.