Hiddink's masterplan starting to bear fruit
Russia's first victory in Estonia since the break-up of the Soviet Union sent Guus Hiddink's men three points clear of third placed England in Group E, in a game he described as a 'breakthrough' in his efforts to transform the Russian team.
Despite losing five players through injury and Igor Titov to a family emergency, Russia had enough in reserve to win a highly charged encounter that has traditionally been a difficult fixture for them.
Estonian football has seen some big changes since the national team failed to turn up against Scotland in 1996. The 10,000 capacity A Le Coq Arena is a big improvement on the Kadriorg ground, where poor floodlighting was the root cause of the Scotland fiasco.
Aivar Pohlak is the owner of Flora Tallinn, a football agent and vice president of the Estonian FA. He has put in a lot of his own money and helped to bring a new management structure including the 35-year-old Dutchman Jelle Goes as head coach. Despite some initial improvements, Estonia are goalless and pointless in Euro 2008 qualification.
Their modest status does not prevent them from fighting hard in Tallinn, especially against Russia, and Hiddink had reason to be upbeat after the game.
'In Macedonia (where Russia won 2-0 in November) we also played a good game, but we have to consider the circumstances, the six or seven players that were not available tonight,' he said. 'On the whole, this was a better performance than Macedonia - we played more modern, faster football today.'
Programme notes written by Pohlak referred to 'those kind of meanings that are impossible to sense, but still exist-both good and bad.' This was an oblique reference to the increasing tensions between Russia and Estonia that are currently focused on the Estonian government's plan to move a Second World War memorial in Tallinn.
The memorial was visited by groups of Russian fans before the game on Saturday, a good few of them partaking of grain-based spirits and singing boisterously.
The Russian contingent at the stadium then unveiled a banner that read 'hands off the Russian soldiers who brought freedom to Estonia' during the national anthems. This put an end to the tentative respect shown by the Estonians, and brought a hearty round of booing.
Thankfully there was no repeat of the trouble at Russia's game in Macedonia, when banners and songs about Kosovo and Chechnya precipitated rioting last November.
Hiddink has built a fast, skillful team that handled the physical challenge posed by Estonia and counter-attacked dangerously. Two superb goals by FC Sevilla's Aleksandr Kerzhakov gave Russia the win and capped a good performance.
His speech is filled with references to 'modern football', meaning the ability of his players to move quickly from defence to attack and back again, switching positions as circumstances dictate. He did not use the words 'Total Football' on Saturday, but it's clear where his inspiration comes from.
In response to questions from the Russian media on the formation he chose, his eyes lit up as he described the mobility of Yuri Zhirkov. The CSKA winger's movement was a constant threat, dominating the left flank.
'It was very flexible. I don't like to talk about playing with three defenders or four defenders or five defenders, I want to play with the whole team,' he said. 'What's important for me is that everyone knows his job, and bit by bit, step by step, players are getting this concept. Sometimes Yuri Zhirkov is playing defensively on the left and three or four seconds later he is in a very attacking position-he is very mobile and a good example of a modern orientated footballer.'
Expectations in Russia are high, but Hiddink has ridden early storms to solidify his position.
'Before the start of the current campaign people in Russia looked at him as at the messiah who came from overseas to lead the Russian national team to Wonderland,' says Pavel Novikov, a journalist with Sport Express Daily.
'But after the draws against Croatia and Israel some of them felt disappointed. Nevertheless most of the fans and journalists still say 'in Guus we trust'. Not just because of the success in Macedonia, but also because he tracks practically every single player who might be useful to the national squad.'
As an outsider, Hiddink is not suspected of picking favoured players from his old club. 'CSKA and Zenit fans didn't like Oleg Romantsev, and Spartak fans hated Valeri Gasaev's decisions,' says Novikov. 'Romantsev ignored Serguey Ovchinnikov and Gasaev ignored Igor Titov. Hiddink has no favourite Russian players, he calls to the national team those who play best.'
Despite the progress made since he was appointed, Hiddink has had some problems with his impatient employers, the Russian Football Federation (RFU). After last October's 1-1 draw with Israel Vitaly Mutko, president of the RFU, complained that Hiddink is 'not a magician, as Abramovich told us'.
The RFU are not used to a coach of Hiddink's stature, and there have been organisational teething problems. 'I was in Moscow on the day when CSKA played Arsenal in the Champions League,' said Hiddink. 'But I was told by the RFU officials that there were no tickets available - I wonder how it could be possible!'
Russia are making great strides towards qualification while their rivals are floundering, and the RFU surely now appreciate the improvements Hiddink has brought to Russian football.
He faces many of the same problems as England manager Steve McClaren - an expectant public, a domestic league dominated by foreigners, integrating 'stars' into a workable formation-and is bringing his version of 'modern football' to Russia.
England fans probably don't want to think about whether their team is 'modern', 'early modern' or even 'pre-modern' in comparison.