Russia's failure to qualify for the 2010 World Cup was probably the biggest shock of that qualifying cycle. It was stunning enough that the surprise darlings of Euro 2008 were forced into a playoff, but to lose to Slovenia -- a nation of two million people where soccer is not the most popular sport -- was stunning. And this was before Slovenia's best current attackers were even first choice guys. It was a shocking collapse.
Now, Russia is back in a major finals with a lot to prove. They were drawn into a weak Group A and they're the clear favorites to win the group. The first team in their way is a spectacularly anonymous Czech Republic side. Most of the great players from the late 90's and early 2000's Czech teams that romped through every youth tournament in the world are gone, and they're left with Tomas Rosicky, Milan Baros, Jaroslav Plasil and a bunch of dudes from Viktoria Plzen.
If it wasn't for terrible injuries to Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere over the last couple of years, most people probably wouldn't be aware that Rosicky was still a thing. A lot of people are probably reading this right now, stunned that Baros is still a thing. Incredibly, Baros -- who transferred to Liverpool in 2002 -- is only 30 years old. He's still scoring for Galatasaray.
Other than those two and the always reliable, but never flashy Plasil, the Czech team won't be familiar to too many people. Their "Golden Generation" flamed out at the 2006 World Cup, and it's easy to forget that they even made Euro 2008. They didn't make the 2010 World Cup. The guys who have brought them back to respectability are solid, but unspectacular guys in their mid-20s playing outside of the Premier League, La Liga and Serie A. It's amazing that, in this day and age, a team that qualified for the European Championships is essentially unknown.
If you're looking for an underdog story or a piece about how the anonymous Czechs are dark horses, you've come to the wrong place. To get to this point, they had to beat a very bad Scotland team to second place in their group and then beat Montenegro in a playoff. Fans of Juventus, as well as general fans of industrious footballers, will be horrified to learn that the frequently-lethargic Mirko Vucinic was probably the hardest-working Montenegro player in that playoff tie. Seriously, the Czechs couldn't have had an easier road to this point.
Russia didn't exactly have a tough road to this point either. They were in a group with Ireland, but the other big threat to their spot was Armenia. Slovakia underachieved horribly in qualifying. Russia did not have to be at their best to get through to this stage and they might not have to be at their best to defeat the Czech Republic. Quite simply, they have the much better squad.
Why are half the players in this game from Zenit St. Petersburg or Viktoria Plzen?
That's a good question. If your follow-up question is "Who are Zenit St. Petersburg and Viktoria Plzen," then all I can say to you is, lol l2p noob. Both Plzen and Zenit participated in the UEFA Champions League this season and both teams take a lot of pride in developing domestic talent. Dick Advocaat has kept Zenit's entire midfield three together, and he'll probably put five Zenit players in his starting XI.
The Czechs might only start one Plzen player, but it wouldn't be surprising to see three Plzen players on the pitch together at some point. Also, all of Petr Jiracek, Jan Rezek and Vaclav Pilar, who no longer play for Plzen, had recent stints there. Plzen winger Milan Petrzela could be an important game-changing sub for Michal Bilek.
That meerkat-looking dude, I recognize him from somewhere. Who is he again?
That's Andrei Arshavin. He won the 2007-08 UEFA Cup with Zenit, then went on to star for Russia in Euro 2008. That helped him seal a transfer to Arsenal. He got off to a decent start there, but his last 18 months or so at Arsenal were very, very bad. They loaned him to Zenit. He looked pretty good there. He hasn't been at his best since Euro 2008, but don't be stunned if the little Meerkat brings his best stuff for his national team yet again on Friday.
Projected Russia Lineup (4-3-3): Igor Akinfeev; Yuri Zhirkov, Aleksei Berezutskiy, Sergei Ignashevich, Aleksandr Anyukov; Igor Denisov, Konstantin Zyryanov, Roman Shirokov; Andrei Arshavin, Aleksandr Kerzahkov, Alan Dzagoev
Projected Czech Republic Lineup (4-2-3-1): Petr Cech; David Limbersky, Michel Kadlec, Tomas Sivok, Theodor Gebre Selassie; Tomas Hubschman, Jaroslav Plasil; Jan Rezek, Tomas Rosicky, Vaclav Pilar; Milan Baros
Monty the Psychic Metal Disk says: Czechoslovakia would have been a worthy opponent for mother Russia, but the Czech Republic are Czechoslovakia without all of the good players. The Russian who looks like a meerkat will rise again. Russia over Czech Republic 2-0.
Game Date/Time: Friday, 2:45 p.m. ET, 8:45 p.m. local
Venue: Municipal Stadium, Wroclaw, Poland
TV: ESPN (U.S. - English), ESPN Deportes (U.S. - Spanish), ITV1 (U.K.), TSN (Canada)