By Eduard Nisenboim
When Russia exited the 2002 FIFA World Cup after a 3-2 defeat by Belgium, striker Aleksandr Kerzhakov and his young team-mate Dmitri Sytchev were pictured teary-eyed in Russian sports daily Sport Express. The headline read: "There is hope while the boys cry." Defeat hurt the youngest players the most; since then they have led the fightback.
Russia may have crashed and burned under Oleg Romantsev in Korea/Japan, but as the newspaper predicted, the young elements in the Russian squad have continued to develop. Now only a two-legged play-off against Wales stands between Georgi Yartsev's Russia and a place at UEFA EURO 2004™.
Kerzhakov has epitomised that progress. With 15 caps and three goals for his country, the 20-year-old has matured into a man in the last year, helping unfancied FC Zenit St. Peterburg to finish second in the Russian Premier League in the 2003 season. He now looks a certain starter, alongside Dmitri Bulykin, in the first leg of the play-off on Saturday.
It is a hugely important game for Russia, and as Kerzhakov told uefa.com, his side are not underestimating Wales. "
It is stupid to talk about any lack of strength in a team which beat Italy and should have finished first in their group," he said. "I think Russia are stronger than Wales, but there is no point talking about it - we need to show it on the pitch. From what I've seen on TV, the Welsh are very quick and they can be a headache."
The striker cited winger Ryan Giggs as the greatest Welsh threat. "For me, Wales as a country is synonymous with the Manchester United [FC] player," he said. "Sometimes he's unbelievable. Look at his last game - he scored twice against Liverpool [FC]."
Against such quality opposition, Kerzhakov is convinced that concentration is paramount, and with a difficult season behind them, he maintained that his team-mates do not lack the right temperament. "The responsibility spurs you on rather than bothering you," he said. "The most important thing is to be believed in.
We've given people hope - it means we can fulfil our task."
Russia will play the first leg of the tie in Moscow at the Lokomotiv stadium, having returned to winning ways under Yartsev after defeats against Georgia, Albania and Israel cost Gazzaev his job. As recent results have proved, the change of coach has not upset the players too much.
"Changing a coach is a normal thing in football," said Kerzhakov. "Last season at Zenit we had three coaching changes and we got used to it. First, you're trying to find out who the new coach is, what it's like working with him. Then comes the first training session and it all settles. I was not nervous when Yartsev was appointed and the results tell you everything about him."
While Kerzhakov has not been a prolific scorer for Russia, Yartsev has kept faith in him for his other qualities on the pitch. The striker himself has been unconcerned by his form in front of goal. "I don't see anything dramatic about myself not scoring for the national team," he said. "It is more important that we win. I would trade all my possible goals for a place in Portugal."
Kerzhakov turns 21 on 27 November. Should he manage to help Russia to book that trip to the finals, it could be a party to remember.
©UEFA.com 1998-2016. All rights reserved.