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Russia: A new hope

Russia's route to this year's finals was a rollercoaster, but Guus Hiddink finally guided his side to Austria and Switzerland with a slender 1-0 win in Andorra while England lost at home to Croatia.

Russia had qualification in their own hands until they lost in Israel, leaving England requiring just a point to book their place at Euro 2008. That they failed said much about England's campaign but Hiddink and his team were welcome receipients of their capitulation.

Russia failed to even make the play-offs in qualifying for the 2006 World Cup, with Slovakia finishing above them, and Hiddink deserves great credit for moulding a squad which largely contains those same players into one capable of gracing the Euro stage.

The country's history at the European Championships is slightly confusing, as for the first 38 years of the tournament's history they played as a member of the Soviet Union.

THe Sovet Union (USSR) were a strong force, winning the inaugural competition in 1960 and also being losing finalists in 1964, 1972 and 1988.

Following the break up of the Soviet block, with players spread across many indepenant countries, Russia played as part of the Commonwealth of Independent States at Euro 92. After that Russia began playing international football as a stand-alone nation but did not qualify for the Euros until 2004 in Portugal.

It was a disappointing debut for Russia. They lost their opening game 1-0 to Spain and were then elimiated from the tourament after two games without scoring a goal following a 2-0 defeat to the hosts. Remarkably, Russia actually beat the eventual champions, Greece, 2-1 in their final match. They had finally managed to produce some form with the pressure off.

Dmitri Kirichenko scored Russia's first ever final goal at the Euros. And Kirichenko made history as his strike came after just 68 seconds - the fastest ever goal in the finals. Dmitri Bulykin made the game safe before Greece replied.

Russia qualified for the World Cup finals in 1994 and 2002, but on both occasions failed to get through to the knockout stages.

Hiddink has now brought a great deal of belief back to the Russian national time after those barren years. For the second Euros in a row they will meet Greece and Spain in the group stage and Hiddink could be the key to them progressing to the next stage for the first time.

Spain will be many experts' tips to win the group but the second spot could be very close. It should all come down to the final group game against Sweden in Innsbruck and with Greece having a far more difficult task against the Spanish, qualification may be in Russia's own hands.

A place in the quarter-finals is likely to be the best Russia can expect and it will show an improvement on past performances. With the Group D qualifiers being paired against those from the 'group of death' in the last eight it seems certain a tough test will lie in wait.

Hiddink, widely regarded as one of the best coaches in world football, will take a wealth of international experience to the finals.

The Dutchman made his name with PSV Eindhoven, taking charge in 1987 and just a year later they lifted the European Cup. He also won three Eredivisie titles with the club.

The 61-year-old, who has also managed De Graafschap, Turkish club Fenerbahce and Valencia in Spain, moved into international management to lead the Netherlands once again to the 1996 European Championships. Severe infighting within the squad undermined his time in charge and he resigned after the Dutch lost out on penalties to Brazil in the semi-finals of the 1998 World Cup.

Hiddink then returned to club management and spent a year at Real Madrid but, predictably, was sacked after failing to deliver the title. A brief three-month stint at Real Betis was to follow in 2000 before he accepted the opportunity to coach co-hosts South Korea at the 2002 World Cup.

The Koreans had never previously advanced beyond the group stage. Roared on by a passionate home support and with organisation, tactical awareness and belief not seen before, the South Koreans amazingly made it to the semi-finals before bowing out to Germany, and losing the 3rd/4th place play-off to Turkey.

Hiddink made such a lasting impression on the Asian nation that became the first person to be awarded honourary South Korean citizenship and, among a raft of other accolades, the World Cup stadium in Gwangju was renamed Guus Hiddink Stadium.

Despite pleading with him to stay, Hiddink left the job after the finals and returned to PSV. The Eindhoven club had sold off many of its star names that same summer, and were predicted by many to struggle, but Hiddink again produced as PSV stormed to a domestic double of league and cup. PSV also caused upsets on the European stage, reaching the semi-finals of the Champions League before going out to a late, late AC Milan goal. They repeated the double act in 2005/06.

In the summer of 2005, Hiddink was lured into the job as Australia coach on a part-time basis, even though he was still in charge of PSV on a day-to-day basis. Twelve months later, and a successful play-off victory over Uruguay, and Hiddink was at his third successive finals with another different country.

Australia then emerged from the group stage in only their second ever finals before losing to an Italian side awarded a dubious late penalty.

He left the Socceroos after the finals, despite again being urged to stay on, and seemed to be at the top of England's wanted list to replace Sven Goran Eriksson. But he pulled out of the running, slamming the FA's conveluted process for apponiting their coach.

England's loss was Russia's gain and he made his point by securing victory in the home leg of their Euro 2008 qualifying game before pipping them to a place in the finals.

After reviving the fortunes of South Korea and Australia, Russian fans have every right to be confident he can also lead Russia through the group stage of a tournament for the first time.

Hiddink brought in numerous fresh faces when he took charged and tends to play with a five-man midfield. However, star striker and captain Andrei Arshavin is out of the first two matches due to suspension which could force the boss into a rethink. The loss of Zenit Saint Petersburg's Arshavin, who has attracted interest across Europe and is the best-paid player in Russian football, cannot be understated.

Added to that, Pavel Pogrebnyak's knee injury picked up in the pre-tournament warm-up against Serbia makes him a real doubt. Pogrebnyak was the top scorer in the UEFA Cup this season as Zenit won the trophy - though the striker missed out on the final through suspension and could now suffer double pain.

At 32, midfielder Sergei Semak - a late recall into the squad - is the oldest member of Hiddink's squad which shows how the coach has put an emphasis on youth rather than experience.

With Arshavin sidelined, Roman Pavlyuchenko could prove to be the star turn. The Spartak Moscow striker scored both goals in Russia's crucial home victory over England in qualifying. At club level, the player scored in both legs of the Champions League qualifier against Celtic but his side lost out on aggregate. He then bagged a hat-trick against BK Hacken in the UEFA Cup first round and notched a total of five goals before they went out to Marseille.

The 26-year-old started his career with Dynamo Stavropol before spending two years at Rotor Volgograd. He signed for Spartak in 2003 and has a superb record of 63 goals in 128 appearances for the club - finishing as the club's top scorer every season.

Pavlyuchenko, who made his debut for Russia in 2005, has been strongly linked with a move to Real Madrid after finishing as top scorer in the Russian league for two years in a row and impressing on the international stage.


  • Any thoughts? Then you can email Dale Johnson.

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