32 Teams in 32 Days: Russia
Group H | Belgium | Algeria | South Korea
Russia haven't been to the World Cup in 12 years, and left the 2002 edition with a disappointing group-stage exit at the hands of Belgium. Yet Russia's inclusion in the upcoming competition isn't being treated as a surprise. Much of that has do with the way national team boss Fabio Capello comfortably navigated through qualifying and the rising profile of Russian players via the vast rubles of the Russian Premier League.
Capello, like many managers of the older Italian school, is a pragmatist. There is no talk of a footballing "philosophy" or a set way of playing, as can be found in Spain and Holland. The Italian moulds the players at his disposal into the most effective unit he can; with Russia, it is a strong and tidy three-man midfield complemented by a fast and incisive forward three.
With a squad mainly based in RPL, the Russian team is made up of a core of CSKA Moscow and Zenit St Petersburg players, including Igor Akinfeev, Sergei Ignashevich, Roman Shirokov and Aleksandr Kerzhakov.
This will be Russia's first appearance in the World Cup since 2002. Their first World Cup, under the former Soviet Union, was in 1958. That appearance started a string of four straight solid performances, as the Soviets reached the quarterfinals three times (1958, 1962, 1970) and finished fourth overall in 1966.
How they reached Brazil
That core of players was featured consistently in qualifying, and the results were impressive. UEFA Group F yielded seven wins, one draw and two losses with a points total of 22, one more than group favourites Portugal.
The qualifying stage also had a redemptive quality. Matches against Portugal allowed Russia to banish the demons of 2004, when a 7-1 defeat in Lisbon had effectively ruled Russia out of the 2006 World Cup and sparked a bout of national soul-searching for Russian football. The match was dubbed Nochnoi Pozor (meaning "Night Shame", a pun on the popular play Nochnoi Dozor, or "Night Watch"), acting as the catalyst for the Russian Football Union's foreign manager project after they deemed domestic coaches to be unsuitable for the program.
The pivotal qualifying match was Russia's 1-0 victory against Portugal at Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium in October 2012. From there, despite Portugal gaining three points in the return fixture, Russia were on the front foot. Portugal continued to slip up with a pair of draws against Israel and another versus Northern Ireland, while Russia succeeded in defeating teams Portugal could not.
By the end, the countries were separated by a single point, masking the fact that the process was all but wrapped up earlier. Russia needed a single point against Azerbaijan in the last round to ensure top spot; they duly obliged with a 1-1 draw in Baku.
The numbers never lie
Calculating a nation's passion for the game based on how well it pays its manager, attends its games and gets out to play:
The redemption theme continues in the group-stage draw with Belgium. During Russia's last World Cup appearance, Belgium cemented Russia's exit. The final Group H game, a winner-takes-all match for second in the group, saw Belgium triumph 3-2 and Russia was sent home.
The winning goal-scorer that day, Belgium captain Marc Wilmots, is now Belgium's manager. Avenging that 2002 loss could help Russia advance to the Round of 16, something they have failed to do so since 1986. Thankfully for football, Russia's grudges in this tournament are of a sporting nature, with Poland (whose fans clashed with Russians at the 2012 Euros) and Ukraine (at odds due to the current political conflict) having failed to qualify.
Most important player
If Russia are to overcome Belgium, South Korea and Algeria, it will be likely be in part from the typical, swaggering performances from Shirokov. The 32-year-old midfielder, banished on loan to FK Krasnodar from Zenit St Petersburg in the fallout from manager Luciano Spalletti's last days, isn't one to avoid controversy.
A Joey Barton-type but with exceptional talent, Shirokov is known for insulting opponents and referees, and also taking to Twitter to air his views. Yet for all his misdemeanours, a genuine football talent surfaces on match days, offering the sort of Rolls-Royce performances expected from the modern midfielder. Pace, an eye for goal, exquisite passing vision and neat dribbling skills -- Shirokov has it all.
Russia's centre-back pairing, meanwhile, forms the base from which Capello likes to build his teams. Vasiliy Berezutskiy and Ignashevich, partners in the CSKA Moscow back four, with Vladimir Granat as the back-up, conceded just five goals in 10 qualifying matches.
Definition of success
The stark contrast between Russia's past World Cup performances and the ability they showed in qualifying makes it difficult to gauge general expectations. Spain manager Vicente del Bosque suggested "even Russia" could win the tournament, yet Capello's target is more modest. "We are preparing everything well and we hope to arrive at the quarterfinal," he told R-Sport.
The great difficulty in Capello's aim of reaching the quarterfinals is a likely Round of 16 draw against either Germany or Portugal if they finish second in the group, possibly providing another opportunity to banish Nochnoi Pozor from the Russia footballing consciousness. The most realistic aim is qualification from the group.
How far will Russia go?
Round of 16.
ESPN FC Analysts' take: Steve McManaman
The driving force on any pitch is always the players, but with a manager like Capello, Russia see a bigger impact from their manager than most teams. He's organized, tactically aware, and everything with him is defend, defend, defend.
He doesn't have a huge amount of superstars on the team, but he has given them a structure on the pitch that's made this team better than the sum of their parts. Their success is all about defence. Goalkeeper Akinfeev was excellent in qualifying, and Ignashevich at the back showed up ready for it. (Don't worry, no one remembers that Ronaldo nutmeg.)
These types of layers have thrived under Fabio, and it has brought a lot of confidence to the team. But Russia haven't played in a World Cup since 2002, and this group won't have the skills to put it together for a long run on the sport's biggest stage.