Russia hoped its impressive showing at Euro 2008, when it produced majestic performances against Sweden and the Netherlands in reaching the semifinals, would end a cycle of underachievement and herald its arrival as a major player in the international game. But it failed to qualify for the World Cup two years later, losing in a playoff to Slovenia, which prompted the departure of manager Guus Hiddink. He was replaced by fellow Dutchman Dick Advocaat, who has stuck largely to the same core of players -- which has led to accusations that he is biased toward the Zenit St Petersburg he led to the UEFA Cup in 2008.
Certainly, there is a sense of staleness about the squad and age and familiarity has turned the high-octane football of four years ago into something more sedate. In the first hour or so of Russia's win over Ireland in Dublin during qualifying, there were reminders of what this side is capable of, but then a couple of long balls sowed panic and a comfortable 3-0 lead rapidly became a nervous 3-2. Advocaat already has revealed he will leave when the championships are over. This feels like the end of an era -- a last hurrah for an aging generation.
Shirokov is a deep-lying midfielder with an aptitude for getting forward to score goals. He filled in as a center back after joining Zenit in '08 and was used in that position by Hiddink in Russia's opening game four years ago. But Russia lost 4-1 to Spain, and he was left out for the rest of the tournament. He will turn 31 four days after the final, but this has arguably been his best season for Zenit. Not only did he help the club to the Russian championship, but he also scored five goals as it progressed to the final 16 of the Champions League.
Dzagoev, who will turn 22 during the tournament, is the great new hope of Russian football. Born in Beslan, North Ossetia, he was at one of the other schools when the '04 Beslan massacre took place. He was soon taken on by the Konoplyov Academy (now funded by Roman Abramovich) before joining CSKA Moscow in '08. An intelligent, roving forward, he is likely to play wide in a 4-3-3 for Russia, although it may be that his best position is behind a front man. For all his gifts, there are doubts about his drive and ambition.
The 29-year old is a modern sort of forward. He isn't quite a false nine -- or at least isn't as "false" as Lionel Messi -- but he does drop deep to link with the midfield, expecting players to break beyond him -- which is one of the reasons for Shirokov's goal haul in the Champions League. Theoretically, that should be good news for Andrei Arshavin, who should be ideally equipped to exploit the space he creates, and the two did link up superbly in their first spells at Zenit, but the chemistry is taking time to reignite after Arshavin's return to the club.
Four years ago, Arshavin emerged as one of Europe's best players after superb performances both for Zenit in the UEFA Cup and Russia in the Euros. He was bright, lively and inventive. He never quite produced his best after a move to Arsenal, though, and Russian fans accused him of becoming lazy on the back of a lucrative move to the west.
Certainly his cheeks look rounder now. A return to Zenit in January has seen flickers of the old Arshavin, but Russia probably needs more than that from its captain.
There are three options for Advocaat at center forward: Roman Pavlyuchenko was one of the heroes of four years ago, a blend of muscularity and movement, but he has struggled to recapture his form in the eight games since his move from Tottenham to Lokomotiv. Pavel Pogrebnyak might have gotten the nod four years ago but for a knee injury suffered just before the tournament. He is a thicker-set, more powerful player who holds the ball up well but is erratic in front of goal. Either of those options would probably mean Kerzhakov being pushed out to the flank. Or Advocaat could go for fluency and play Kerzhakov down the middle.
As a teenager, Igor Akinfeev was hailed as the next in the great tradition of Russian goalkeepers, the next in the line of Khomich, Yashin and Dasaev. His career has been stalled by two major knee injuries, though, and he has played just six games for CSKA after a seven-and-a-half month layoff caused by the latest of them. Those games are probably enough to get him back into the side over Zenit's Vyacheslav Malafeev, but that feels horribly like selection by reputation. Malafeev has done little wrong and, while Akinfeev is almost certainly the better keeper at his best, it's not clear how near his best he is.
One of the reasons the Russian Football Union turned to Advocaat after Hiddink's departure was that he shares a similar tactical philosophy. The 4-3-3 with the mobile center forward and two players who cut in front of the wings remains, and that means there will still be a great onus on the fullbacks -- Aleksandr Anyukov and Yury Zhirkov -- to get forward and overlap their wide men.
The retirement of Sergei Semak has caused problems at the back of midfield and, certainly against better opposition, it seems likely that Advocaat will go with two holders and a creator (so a 4-2-1-3 rather than a 4-1-2-3 as is more usual in a 4-3-3). Igor Denisov is the controlling player in front of the back four, with Konstantin Zyryanov a calm facilitator, keeping the ball moving and rarely losing possession. That should then give Shirokov license to get forward to join the attack.