Andy Potts

Football fever is gripping Moscow in the run up to Saturday’s do-or-die World Cup qualifier against Germany.

With more than 100,000 applications for tickets received within 24 hours of Russia’s win in Wales, the Luzhniki Stadium has been heavily over-subscribed, while a complicated system of buying tickets has spawned a stream of promo campaigns and competitions, plus a lively black market.

Match tickets are already changing hands for 7,000 roubles (about £140), with Volkswagen’s offer to give a pair of free tickets with every new Polo sold in September suddenly looking like reasonable value.

More bizarre still, the German carmaker has been plastering the streets of Moscow with banners proudly boasting "We’re supporting Russia!" – a slightly unconvincing spin-off of their sponsorship of the national team, a deal cemented along with their new factory in Kaluga, about 200 km from Moscow.

Excitement and anticipation has even exceeded the level seen before 2007’s Euro qualifier against England: back then Russia hoped to win, today they believe in victory.

But Guus Hiddink, the man who returned self-belief to the nation’s footballers after almost two decades of despair, is having none of this rampant optimism.

Well aware of Germany’s proven ability to get the results they need, he warned his players that they would need to play even better than against England in a recent interview with Sovietsky Sport.

There are still grounds for optimism, though. Russia’s midfield looks to be in great shape, with Hiddink’s headache being to choose the best quartet for the task.

Since Vladimir Bystrov’s move back to Zenit St. Petersburg, that team has shaken off its post-Dick Advocaat malaise and is mounting a serious assault on the top three.

As a result, many observers are calling on Hiddink to select Bystrov and his three partners – Igor Denisov, Konstantin Zyryanov and Igor Semshov – as a unit.

But that would dismiss the claims of Everton’s new signing Diniyar Bilyaletdinov, Rubin Kazan and Russia skipper Sergei Semak and Lokomotiv Moscow’s right-winger Dmitry Torbinsky.

Bystrov – described by ex-Spartak forward Yury Sevidov as "the best player in the country" in The Moscow News – is sure to start if he shakes off the niggle which kept him out of Zenit’s 2-1 win over Dinamo Moscow at the weekend.

But with Sevidov also warning that he "lacks stability", it seems certain that Hiddink will opt for the tried and trusted Semak, with Anyukov and Semshov likely to get the nod ahead of Bilyaletdinov.

Dinamo’s defeat on Sunday highlighted Russia’s main troubles. In the absence of Denis Kolodin, hamstrung until the end of the season, a defence which has conceded just three goals in qualifying requires a reshuffle.

CSKA Moscow’s Sergei Ignashevich is likely to be partnered by club-mate Vasiliy Berezutsky, which means little pace in the backline, while Chelsea’s Yuri Zhirkov will have to prove his fitness in training the week if he’s to oust the pacey but limited Rinat Yanbayev of Lokomotiv.

That impressive defensive record also conceals some alarming details: Russia’s resurgence means the minnows no longer dare to attack the bear, and focus on stifling that lively midfield instead.

However, against leading nations – Spain twice in the Euros, Germany in the previous qualifier and Argentina in a recent friendly – goals have flowed too freely, with 12 coming in those four matches. It’s time to show this team is more than a flat-track bully with a soft underbelly.

Another concern for Hiddink as he reflected on that Zenit-Dinamo game is also his strikers. While Andrei Arshavin is shattering the stereotypes of Eastern European footballers struggling in England, his potential colleagues are struggling.

Alexander Kerzhakov has run himself into the ground as a lone striker for a Dinamo side sinking fast, and looks like a player desperately waiting for the end of the season.

Meanwhile, back in England, Roman Pavlyuchenko’s struggles at Spurs have reinforced the stereotypes Arshavin is overcoming. The hero of that 2-1 win over England was training alone in Moscow last week after being left out of the Premier League side’s squad which travelled to Bolton.

With ex-Zenit star Pavel Pogrebniak still settling in to life at Bundesliga giants Stuttgart and young Alan Dzagoyev being forced to knuckle under at CSKA – where Sevidov noted approvingly that incoming coach Juande Ramos had given him ‘a spanking’ – there is no partner for Arshavin in outstanding form. Pogrebniak will likely get the nod, but expect to see something of Dzagoyev at some stage.

The hosts will hope that the Luzhniki’s artificial pitch and the passionate support expected in a full house can tip the balance in their favour – but even victory brings a risk of further disappointment.

In the chaotic conclusion to the England-Russia qualification battle two years ago, the infamous sight of Steve McClaren’s brolly obscures memories of Russia’s defeat in Israel and painful 1-0 win in Andorra to see them crawl over the line.

With an eminently winnable trip to Azerbaijan to come, Hiddink will be aware that Germany are likely to be less forgiving than England were in the event of any stumble in Baku.

Related Articles:


Russia 09/10 Home            FC Porto 09/10 Home

Russia 09/10 home shirt                   Porto 09/10 home shirt