ZURICH, SWITZERLAND - JUNE 01: Aleksandr Kerzhakov of Russia celebrates scoring the first goal during the international friendly match between Italy and Russia at Letzigrund on June 1, 2012 in Zurich, Switzerland. (Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images)
Russia don't have the youth or mystery of the Euro 2008 team, but they're still a decent squad loaded with experienced players.
Russia have their fair share of solid young players coming through the ranks, but Euro 2012 will be more about their veteran players. The oldest and most experienced among their ranks are likely to get one more cycle to make it on the world stage following Euro 2012, but this will be one of the last times this core of Russian players is together. Most of the team's big names are in their late 20s, and manager Dick Advocaat is leaving the team at the conclusion of the tournament.
The stars of Andrei Arshavin and Roman Pavlyuchenko have fallen considerably since their spectacular Euro 2008 performances, but they're still key parts of this year's team. Pavlyuchenko is out of form and looks out of shape, which could relegate him to a bench role, but Arshavin is still a starter and a captain for his country. He is no longer the team's top creative outlet, but he will need to perform for Russia to reach their potential.
Arshavin is the team's biggest name and the three-man Zenit St. Petersburg contingent in midfield could make or break the Russians, but Alan Dzagoev is beginning to emerge as their star. The CSKA Moscow No. 10 plays as a left forward who cuts inside in Russia's 4-3-3, and he will be the team's key creative outlet. The 21-year-old is coming off the best season of his career for his club team and he's finally made the transition from being a promising youngster to being a great professional. With 20 international caps and three seasons of Champions League football to his name, he now has the experience that he'll be expected to play a massive role for Russia.
With Dzagoev and Arshavin playing on the wings, the team will inevitably lack some width. Neither player is a winger and both will want to cut inside frequently. This means that Russia's fullbacks are extremely important to their team, and they usually rise to the challenge. Aleksandr Anyukov and Yuri Zhirkov are both very intelligent players who are excellent crossers of the ball, and they will be depended on to provide the majority of Russia's width.
When those players get forward, they're protected by a center of midfield that has fantastic chemistry and that is coming off of a brilliant season. Roman Shirokov, Igor Denisov and Konstantin Zyryanov play together in the middle for Zenit St. Petersburg and are expected to stay together as a unit for Russia at the Euros. Denisov will sit deep, giving his midfield mates a bit of freedom to get forward. Both Zyryanov and Shirokov have a nose for goal and good scoring records at club level, but they both contribute defensively as well. Their versatility and chemistry as a unit will make Russia extremely difficult to break down.
That midfield sits in front of Russia's very reliable, but not dominant central defense pairing of Sergei Ignashevich and Aleksei Berezutskiy. They're both competent in every aspect of their game, but nothing in particular stands out. They're not likely to get badly beaten for pace or physically dominated by anyone, but both lack the pedigree to shut down a truly elite striker. They're often made to look great by their No. 1 goalkeeper, but unlike the Russia team at Euro 2008, their No. 1 goalkeeper has question marks heading into the tournament.
Igor Akinfeev is, without question, a world class goalkeeper. When healthy, he makes Russia and CSKA Moscow better, but he's been injured for eight months. If he is healthy, Russia can play with anyone. He's a good enough player that he can keep his team in games where they are completely outclassed. He's not in form, however, and did not start in Russia's recent 3-0 friendly victory over Italy. Backup goalkeeper Vyacheslav Malafeev is a quality keeper who won't cost Russia any games, but he's also not going to rescue them when they're playing poorly.
That question is simply one of fitness. If Akinfeev is fit, he will play, and even if he's not in top form he will not be worse than Malafeev. The biggest question for Russia is up top, where Advocaat has a difficult decision to make. His most in-form striker is Pavel Pogrebnyak, a natural No. 9 who struggled for Stuttgart but played brilliantly after moving to Fulham. The safe option is Alexksandr Kerzhakov, a great finisher who moves intelligently off the ball, but he has limited physical gifts. The wild card is Pavlyuchenko, who has the highest ceiling and lowest floor. When he's on, he can score hat tricks against world class teams. More often since Euro 2008, he's been poor for club and country. He looks out of shape and did nothing impressive for either Tottenham or Lokomotiv Moscow this season. He's not likely to start, but he could be an impact player for Russia off the bench if he's in shape and motivated.
Projected lineup (4-3-3)
GK Igor Akinfeev LB Yuri Zhirkov CB Sergei Ignashevich CB Aleksei Berezutskiy RB Aleksandr Anyukov DM Igor Denisov CM Konstantin Syryanov CM Roman Shirokov LF Andrei Arshavin CF Aleksandr Kerzhakov RF Alan Dzagoev
Andrei Arshavin: Alan Dzagoev is in form, while the contingent of players who have been with Zenit St. Petersburg all season have been very consistent. The same cannot be said of Andrei Arshavin, who has had a very up and down career for both club and country since Euro 2008. He's still a game-changing player at his best, but no one has seen his best in a long time. If he finds his old form, Russia is a dark horse contender in Euro 2012, but there aren't too many people counting on him to do so.
Quarterfinals: Russia's group is weak and it would be stunning if they didn't progress. Poland have the benefit of being hosts, but Dick Advocaat's team has no excuse to not finish first or second in Group A. After that, they're in trouble. No matter who they face from Group B, they're likely to be underdogs in the quarterfinals. They'll obviously be underdogs against Germany or the Netherlands, but they should also be underdogs against Denmark or Portugal if they're in good enough form to upset one of those big two.