Russia's World Cup predictions
After four years of waiting, the time has come. Another World Cup is here, and our bloggers across all 32 competing countries have each predicted the fate that awaits their team. The country's Outlook gives a general view of its situation ahead of the tournament, while Pitfalls takes a look at any potential problems. Each blogger will also predict the top scorer and breakout star and suggest how far that nation can go.
Russia arrive in Brazil with huge question marks hovering over the team. The whole system was built around the playmaking talents of captain Roman Shirokov, the most important attacking player by a distance. While he missed the friendly games over the past few weeks, it was widely predicted that he would be able to take part in the final tournament. Now that Shirokov has been ruled out of World Cup, having to undergo a surgery on his back, Fabio Capello's team is desperately short of improvisation in midfield.
While both central defenders -- new captain Vasily Berezutsky and Sergei Ignashevich -- are very stable, experienced and possess an exceptional mutual understanding with fellow CSKA Moscow goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, many other issues are still undecided. Capello tried different players in various positions during the friendlies, but no one fully convinced.
All 32 team previews and predictions
Brazil | Cameroon | Croatia | Mexico
Australia | Netherlands | Chile | Spain
Colombia | Greece | Ivory Coast | Japan
Costa Rica | England | Italy | Uruguay
Ecuador | France | Honduras | Switzerland
Argentina | Bosnia | Iran | Nigeria
Germany | Ghana | Portugal | USA
Algeria | Belgium | Russia | South Korea
Who will be able to replace Shirokov as a playmaker? Oleg Shatov and Alan Dzagoev were tried out without real success. Russia's midfield doesn't supply enough quality through balls to striker Aleksandr Kokorin, and their attacking game is desperately predictable most of the time.
Their full-backs look out of their depth. Andrey Eshchenko, who looks to have won the battle with Aleksey Kozlov to play at right-back, is 30 years old but very inexperienced at international level. If Morocco exposed his weaknesses time and time again, Belgium ace Eden Hazard is likely to be delighted to face him. Left-back Dmitry Kombarov is much more mature, but out of form following the dreadful end to his season with Spartak Moscow. He was responsible for several glaring mistakes during the friendlies, and simply isn't at the desired level at the moment. All Russia's opponents in the group stage are quick down the wings, and it is absolutely crucial for the full-backs to improve. A holding midfielder is a very important position for any team, but Capello hasn't decided yet who will fill that role in Brazil. The candidates are Igor Denisov and Denis Glushakov; both have seen better days.
Kokorin is expected to play as a lone striker in a 4-5-1 formation that some oddly try to describe as 4-3-3. Aleksandr Kerzhakov started in all 10 games in the qualifiers, but Capello doesn't seem to trust him anymore after he finished the season on Zenit bench. That might be a mistake. The 23-year-old Kokorin is a rising star of Russian football. He is very mobile and his movement off the ball is brilliant, allowing him to escape the offside trap. However, his ability to convert chances into goals is still far from world-class, as five goals in 22 games for Russia would suggest -- especially taking into account that all were scored against relative minnows. The Dynamo Moscow striker must significantly improve in that respect in order to become one of the revelations of the tournament.
Aleksey Ionov is one of the few players in Russia squad who approaches the tournament in top form. The Dynamo Moscow winger had a bad boy reputation during his spell at Zenit, but he has grown up and enjoyed a very positive season. Capello intends to use more experienced Aleksandr Samedov on the right flank, but Ionov might come into consideration if things go wrong, as he is able to provide speed, quality crosses and shots. This could be the opportunity for the 25-year-old to change his problematic image forever, and become one of the leaders ahead of the 2018 World Cup on home soil.
PREDICTION: Possibly last 16
Given poor quality of play in recent friendlies, lack of improvisation in attack and serious issues in defence, Russia might struggle. They have a relatively comfortable group, but Belgium look far superior to them at the moment. The first game against South Korea at the hot venue of Cuiaba is absolutely crucial, while speedy Algeria are very dangerous opponents that must not be underestimated. Capello's troops can survive the group stage and go out against Germany in the second round, but that is by no means certain. Quarterfinals or higher would be considered an outstanding result, and Akinfeev will likely be the hero if that happens.