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May 30, 2012

Russia's dilemma

When Dick Advocaat took charge of the Russian national team for the first time in August 2010 -- having watched the side fail to qualify for that summer’s World Cup -- he was asked whether he planned to freshen up the squad left to him by fellow Dutchman Guus Hiddink.

"Unfortunately we don't have any time for experiments," was Advocaat’s terse response. "We have to rely on tried and tested players. On the other hand we do also need new blood, but I haven't yet been able to discover new quality players. If I do, they will get the call."

Almost two years on, as Russia undergoes its final preparations for Euro 2012, it's clear that rather than "new blood," Advocaat is sticking with old heads. Of the XI who started the 1-0 win over Bulgaria, 10 were selected for the preliminary 26-man Euro 2012 squad named by Advocaat on May 11, nine of which survived the cut down to the final 23. Of the odd men out, Lokomotiv Moscow midfielder Dmitry Torbinsky was considered by many to be unfortunate to miss out while Vasily Berezutsky was a late withdrawal through injury. Given that Advocaat has selected the man who replaced Torbinsky as a substitute that day, CSKA Moscow's Alan Dzagoev, it’s practically a full house.

Indeed, there are only two uncapped players in Advocaat's provisional 26, Vladimir Granat and Kirill Nababkin -- the latter an emergency call-up following Berezutsky’s withdrawal. Meanwhile no team has selected more players over 30 than Russia (though the Czechs and Irish can match Russia's total of eight). Just four are younger than 25.

Arguably Advocaat cannot be blamed for his conservatism. A significant number of his squad was part of the so-called "Golden Generation" of players who reached the semifinals of Euro 2008, an achievement that remains the defining moment of modern Russia's football history. Andrei Arshavin, Roman Pavlyuchenko and Konstantin Zyryanov, who all made the Team of the Tournament four years ago, are undoubtedly some of the finest footballers Russia has produced since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In all, 12 of the squad picked for Euro 2008 will compete again in Poland and Ukraine.

And yet, with Arshavin, Pavlyuchenko and Zyryanov -- as well as fellow members of the Class of '08 Igor Semshov, Sergey Ignashevich and Roman Shirokov -- all into their 30s, there is a sense that time may already have run out on the Golden Generation and that Advocaat has been neglectful in not bringing through a younger crop of talents. Dwelling on the success of Hiddink's reign has become a national pastime in Russia -- Hiddink has become something of a national figurehead, with one Siberian family going so far as to name their son “Guus” (which translates as “goose” in Russian) in his honor -- and yet many forget that his side failed to reach the 2010 World Cup and was unconvincing in scraping past Ireland, Slovakia and minnow Armenia to reach this summer's Euros.

Even at club level, it's not as if these players have been entirely convincing in the past two years. Arshavin, the most familiar of those names, has rather fallen from grace since his 2009 transfer to Arsenal. His loan spell back at hometown club Zenit St Petersburg since January may have yielded three goals and four assists (plus some playing time), but there are doubts even among his adoring Russian public that he can return to the heights scaled at Euro 2008. Lokomotiv Moscow striker Pavlyuchenko has suffered a stop-start six months since returning to Russia from Tottenham Hotspur, while Zyryanov can hardly make it through 90 minutes for Zenit St Petersburg (he has done so just once since last November). Only the combative midfielder Shirokov appears to be improving with age and can now lay claim to being Russia's most important player.

Perhaps the most damning indictment of Advocaat's two-year spell as Russia coach -- his contract expires after Euro 2012, at which time he’ll take charge of PSV Eindhoven -- came in the form of Roman Sharonov, a journeyman defender who, at 36, represents the shock call-up to the Russia squad. Sharonov will be the third-oldest outfielder at Euro 2012 (Greece's Nikos Liberopoulos and Sweden's Anders Svensson are older), but if experience is what Advocaat wants, there are surely better options than a man who last represented his country eight years ago at Euro 2004, during which, incidentally, he was sent off in Russia's opening group game against Spain.

"My first reaction to the news that I had been called up to the national team was: is today April Fools' Day?" Sharonov told news agency RIA.

He isn't the only person to consider his inclusion something of a joke. Just 2.6 percent of respondents to a poll on the website of daily newspaper Sovetsky Sport said they felt Advocaat had picked an “ideal” squad. "If you look at those who might replace [main center back] Ignashevich & Co., you reach a depressing conclusion," former Russia international defender Yury Kovtun told the paper.

But Advocaat is also right to point out the dearth of world-class young Russian players at his disposal. If Advocaat hadn't opted for Sharonov, his next choice would probably have been 22-year-old Taras Burlak, who will one day make a fine central defender but for now has just 50 club appearances under his belt for Lokomotiv Moscow.

CSKA playmaker Dzagoev, 21, is a rare talent in every sense of the word, one of the few players in recent years to push for a call-up while still in his teens. Of the rest, any manager would look to Russia's Under-21s for options, but that side relies heavily on players at the upper age limit and few look like making the jump up to full international honors any time soon. A few rather optimistically cite 21-year-old Denis Cheryshev of Real Madrid Castilla as a possible star in the making, but his chances of usurping the likes of Angel di Maria and gaining a foothold in the senior La Liga side look slimmer than ever.

After the Euros, it looks likely that Russia will overhaul the team completely, given Advocaat’s departure and the 2018 World Cup on home soil looming on the horizon. "We have to draw up a strategic line, so that we are already beginning to create the framework of the 2018 national team after this forthcoming European championship," former Russia international coach Valery Gazzaev said in an interview with Sport Express. "That was the situation when in 2002 I took charge of Russia. We brought into the team ... the Berezutsky brothers, Ignashevich, Pavlyuchenko, [Evgeny] Aldonin, Arshavin, [Aleksandr] Kerzhakov." Ironically, 10 years later, it is exactly those players -- six of whom are in Advocaat's 26 -- who are most under threat of being moved aside.

But the payback for Russia's dearth of young talent may come sooner, as the younger, fitter, more competitive and more in-form Poles, Greeks and Czechs line up alongside the Russians in Euro 2012 Group A. Without the new blood demanded by Advocaat two years ago, an anemic performance by Russia could very well be on the cards.

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