The vibe in the crowded Wroclaw press room ahead of Russia’s Euro 2012 opener against Czech Republic suggested Dick Advocaat’s men were the side weighed down by expectations as they look to dominate a weak Group A, yet they more than lived up to their billing as tournament dark horses with their emphatic 4-1 victory.
All the talk in the Russian camp was of limiting expectations in the build up to this game, doing their best to argue that it was an evenly-matched pool where anyone could beat anyone else and that they were drained in the wake of an arduous season. “Don’t pay too much attention to our 3-0 friendly victory over Italy last week,” Russia skipper Andrei Arshavin had said. “We’re too old and don’t have enough pace to be contenders.”
So much for the phoney war as, on the evidence of their trouncing of a dishevelled Czech side, the boys from St Petersburg and Moscow will very much be a force to be reckoned with in Euro 2012. Fluid, neat and inventive on the ball, brilliant on the counter-attack and with the obvious exception of misfiring striker Aleksandr Kerzhakov - who was substituted late on after missing chance upon chance - clinical in their finishing.
“At times we walked through the Czech lines,” former Russia international frontman Sergei Kiriakov, who is now in charge of the federation’s juniors, said. “We could have scored many more but it’s best not to be greedy. It was the perfect start to a tournament: three points, a good margin of victory and all the confidence which ensues.
“Of course, the important thing will be for us to keep these high standards. We don’t want to be one of those teams who begins a championship in a blaze of glory then fizzles out. They say this is an old team which perhaps is past its best. I don’t agree as class is permanent and there’s plenty of gas left in the tank of our older guard.”
It was the performance of Andrei Arshavin that sparked the greatest post-match debate, with the revitalised Arsenal midfielder back to his buoyant best both on the pitch and as he met the media after the game. "We all knew what was possible for us at this tournament, but it was a case of waiting to show we could be competitive,” Arshavin said. “Our form coming into Euro 2012 gave us all confidence and now we have this victory. It is only a start, but a very nice start.”
Russia coach Dick Advocaat did his best to play down the significance of his side’s emphatic victory, and also attempted to cool the hype surrounding the CSKA Moscow starlet Alan Dzagoev, two-goal hero. “We know what Dzagoev is capable of and hopefully everyone will know more about him at the end of this competition,” he said. “We made life difficult for ourselves at times in this game and, against different opposition, we could have been punished. It is a nice win, but we have much to work on.”
At the heart of this victory was Russia’s outstanding three-man midfield: the work-rate and tactical awareness of enforcer Igor Denisov, the clever support play and distribution of Konstantin Zyryanov and, last but by no means least, the contribution of classy playmaker Roman Shirokov, whom one journalist compared favourably to ex-Manchester United hero Eric Cantona.
“At Euro 2008, Guus Hiddink used Shirokov as a central defender for Russia and it was a disaster,” former Russia No. 10 Aleksandr Mostovoi said. “Shirokov is much, much more useful in a creative role. He has great vision and touch and, as he showed tonight, he certainly knows how to put the ball in the net. I like his forceful personality and huge confidence. I’m expecting more of the same from him throughout the tournament.”
Despite their thumping win, Russia need to tread carefully. They have a tendency to blow hot and cold and, at various moments of this game, they inexplicably slipped into sleepwalking mode, handing the initiative to the opponents. Their lapses in concentration may explain why the stony-faced Advocaat struggled to fully enjoy his success, but he should revel in the triumph as wins of this magnitude are hardly commonplace in an opening game of a major tournament.
As for the Czechs, this was a night they will want to forget in a hurry. Apart from busy midfielder Petr Jiracek and cool and composed right-back Theodor Gebre Selassie, they were in a state of disarray and already their press pack is baying for the blood of head coach Michal Bilek, charged with not having sufficient tactical strings to his bow and allowing favouritism to flourish, notably in his bizarre persistence in picking over-the-hill striker Milan Baros.
Despite having plenty of backing in Wroclaw - the Czech Republic is within easy reach of South-West Poland - the Czechs seemed strangely subdued and Bilek must have been especially alarmed at the lack of urgency in his ranks, their flat-footed central defence, failure to track runners and toothless attack. Russia do not have the speediest of back-lines, yet rarely were they put under any sort of pressure.
The Czechs are hugely dependant of the creativity of skipper Tomas Rosicky and, unfortunately, his performance was as anonymous as so many of his pre-Christmas displays for Arsenal.
“We can’t hide from this result,” Czech national team director Vladimir Smicer said. “It was very disappointing and a blow to our confidence. In an ideal world, you do not want to lose your opening game. Now we have to play catch-up. However, I have to stress that all is not lost. Russia are a fantastic side and they are the favourites to top the group. I totally believe in the character and unity of our squad. We’ll pick ourselves up, learn some lessons and look for maximum points from our remaining games. We have to swim against the tide, but that is not beyond us.”
Early judgements can prove to be dangerous, yet it seems as if the Czechs are merely making up the numbers at Euro 2012. As for Russia, it remains to be seen whether the blatant incompetence of their opponents or their own class was the primary factor for this early tournament goal fest.